Thousands of nurses working at medical centres across New Zealand are expected to walk off the job for one day next month as part of a desperate plea for better pay.

The New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) has today announced a strike notice will be actioned this week for close to 3,200 Primary Health Care (PHC) nurses and administration staff. They provide care across more than 500 medical practices and accident/medical centres nationwide.

The one-day strike is set for Thursday September 3, but NZNO Industrial Adviser Chris Wilson said there was still time to resolve the situation.

“Our PHC members voted overwhelmingly in favour of the strike and that’s a clear indication of their frustration and disappointment after nine months of fruitless negotiations.”

The community nurses said they just want to be paid the same as their District Health Board colleagues, Wilson said. An experienced nurse earns 10.6 per cent less ($7,651 per annum) than a hospital nurse, and some on the medical receptionist/administration scale earn lower than the living wage. The top base level for an experienced (more than six years) DHB nurse was paid a $77,300 salary.

In comparison, an experienced nurse working at a medical centre is paid about $69,700. Wilson said it would take very little for the Government to resolve this issue and properly value the amazing work these people do in providing expert care in the community – demonstrated in the Covid-19 response.

Minister of Health Chris Hipkins said while he valued to the work of all nurses, it would be inappropriate for the Government to interfere in pay negotiations of those employed by private employers. Nurses working in non-DHB workplaces, including primary health, are employed by private employers, he said.

“Their pay and conditions are not negotiated with the Government or Crown entities. It is not appropriate for the Government to interfere in that process.”

Wilson responded by saying the Ministry of Health provided funding to Primary Health Organisations which allocated funding to general practices to make sure the community had adequate access to primary health care.

It would be more than appropriate for the Government to intervene, especially during a pandemic.” The minister said he would not comment further. Members are fully aware that there have been changes to Covid-19 alert levels and have not taken this action lightly, Wilson said. She said the union would be open to discussing issues of patient safety as may be raised by the employers.

“The strike ballot was already well underway when alert levels shifted. We have been endeavouring to resolve this matter for far too long and members have simply had enough.”

Wilson said members have been very clear they need pay parity with DHBs so they can keep their staff and maintain quality care, but they say funding from the Government is inadequate to do this. NZNO and employer advocates, the NZ Medical Association and Green Cross Health, have approached the Ministry of Health and Government on several occasions seeking intervention to end this pay inequity.

“If the political will is there we can achieve a resolution without the strike needing to occur, and that would be in the interests of everyone in Aotearoa New Zealand right now,” Wilson said.

“NZNO is willing to meet at any time to resolve this. All we need is for the Government to do the right thing for the people who help save lives during the perilous time of a pandemic.”

Gabrielle Lord, Nursing Director of ProCare Primary Health Organisation, said she had heard of nurses in Auckland working long days for the past seven days to support the community to get swabbed.

“In Auckland we have seen the power of the nursing workforce in primary care demonstrated by the huge response to the latest community outbreak of Covid, by teams of nurses working in community testing centres, and general practices keeping our communities safe ensuring thousands of people are swabbed daily for Covid-19.”

Lord said nurses working in primary care deserved the same pay as those working in hospitals and General Practice needed to be adequately funded to ensure that this vital resource is retained.

“These nurses receive the same training and carry the same level of risk. They work in a complex environment, multi-tasking the needs of the patients/whānau and the community,” she said. “They also respond quickly to changing environments such as the current Covid-19 pandemic and the measles outbreak last year, both largely fought in primary and community care.”

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