Nearly 30,000 nurses, midwives and healthcare assistants may walk off the job for 24 hours on July 5 unless last-ditch efforts by DHBs and NZNO to make a deal are successful.

The NZNO announced at 1pm this afternoon that its DHB members had, after a year of negotiations and simmering frustration, voted to strongly reject the 20 district health boards’ third pay offer.

The NZNO’s DHB members’ have already voted to in favour of issuing strike notices for July 5 and July 12 if a deal couldn’t be met to meet nurses’ longstanding concerns about safe staffing and low pay rates. NZNO on Wednesday will issue the required fortnight’s notice of a 24-hour strike on July 5, but NZNO industrial services manager Cee Payne said as nursing and midwifery were essential services, urgent efforts were also underway to try and avert strike action.

“Alongside the setting up of urgent mediation or facilitation, NZNO is surveying members to seek clarity about the specific issues that members require to be addressed to settle the DHB MECA,” Cee Payne said.

“The immediate staffing crisis as a result of the past decade of underfunding of DHBs has taken a heavy toll on nurses and their ability to provide safe patient care.

The DHBs  are expected to explore all available options – including mediation – to avoid a winter strike at the start of the peak flu season, which the health sector fears could be a severe one following a bad flu season in the northern hemisphere. The DHBs began contingency planning in late March and NZNO and the DHBs have been meeting to discuss the Code of good faith for public health sector requirement to ensure that life-preserving services are available to prevent a serious threat to life or permanent disability during any strike action. (The DHBs are holding a press conference at 2.30pm today.)

NZNO Chief Executive Memo Musa says that strike action is a last resort but, should it go ahead, patient safety was paramount.

The rejected pay offer was seen by many nurses as falling short of catching up with a decade of minor pay rises and major increases in nursing responsibility. Others had criticised the deal for targeting the majority of the NZNO members (about 20,000), who are on registered nurse/midwives scale and would have benefited the most from the latest offer.

About 15,000 of those inpatient RNs and RMs were at the top of the current five-step basic pay scale and the DHBs’ offer of two extra steps to that scale – on top of the planned 3 x 3 per cent pay increases and $2000 lump sum being offered to all NZNO members – would have equated to a 15 per cent pay increase over the planned three-year term.

But senior nurses, enrolled nurses, healthcare assistants (HCAs) and community nurses and midwives (who already have an eight-step pay scale) are being offered the standard 9 per cent over three years and  the pro rata $2000 lump sum. Nurses on the senior nurse pay scale (which is for nurses appointed to senior roles who usually aren’t eligible for penalty rates and overtime) will also get a one-off 1 per cent increase on ratification of the proposed agreement.

The last major strike action in the DHB sector was when about 3,000 house officers and registrars covered by the NZ Resident Doctors’ Association (RDA) and 20 District Health Boards Collective Agreement took three days of strike action in January 2017 and 48 hours in October 2016 over a call for safer rosters. The proposed July nurses strike would involve NZNO members who make up the majority of the DHBs’ 27,000 nursing workforce.

The first and last nationwide strike by public hospital nurses was in 1989, when nurses who were members of the then New Zealand Nurses’ Association and the Public Service Association (PSA) took strike action on February 14. The passing of the Employment Contracts Act 1991 saw the breakdown of national bargaining, and regional NZNO strikes followed in 1992-93 in areas like Auckland and Nelson-Marlborough. The decade ended with a three-day strike in 1999 by Waikato nurses, and the last NZNO public hospital strike was held in Christchurch in 2001.

Mental health nurses from 15 hospitals and units who were PSA members took strike action in 2004.

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