Nurses ready to fight for big pay boost
By REBECCA WALSH AND MARTIN JOHNSTON health reporters
About 20,000 nurses and midwives are preparing a push for salary rises to lift them closer to police pay rates and to stem staff losses.
In what could be one of the most significant pay fights since the 2002 secondary teacher strikes, nurses and employers are to begin preliminary talks next week on the nursing unionists' bid for the first national state nursing pay deal in 13 years.
It is expected to cost the Government about $300 million and could cause national hospital strikes in August.
Nurses are walking away from the job, blaming long hours, bad pay rates, staff shortages and unsociable shift hours.
Their union, the Nurses Organisation, says pay rates are less than those of similar professions, and well below those of nurses in other countries.
It says that allowing for cost-of-living differences, a nurse with five years' experience on the median $44,500-a-year base salary, would be $5000 better off in Britain and $9000 better off in Canada.
In high risk areas such as Saudi Arabia, nurses earn up to $80,000 a year, before overtime.
The Nurses Organisation wants pay rises of more than 20 per cent.
It believes this year is its best chance of winning "fair pay", because Labour is still in power and producing surpluses.
The nurses, midwives and nurse-aides at the 21 district health boards also want fixed nurse-patient ratios and will seek, for the first time in pay talks, to end the gender pay gap in the female-dominated job.
The Government, which is committed to state pay equity, is not saying how much it might cost but says it could be "significant".
This week's Budget said pay rises could cut the Government's surplus or increase debt.
A union manager, Laila Harre, would last night not rule out members at all hospitals striking simultaneously, but said it was unlikely and in any strike life-preserving services would be maintained.
She was confident the union could achieve its aims without industrial action, although chief executive Geoff Annals has warned that if the Government fails to deliver, industrial action is a virtual certainty.
The health boards' spokesman Jim Green, chief executive of the Tairawhiti board, said they wanted a national deal.
This would benefit patients by providing a nationwide career structure to help retain nurses.
Nurses want a new graduate's median salary, including penal rates, to rise from $37,705 now to $45,600, and the top of the five- or six-year scale to go from $50,730 to $61,560.
The basic scale for police constables, including penal rates and superannuation, goes from $46,125, to $63,018 after 15 years and $69,863 at the top.
Nurses believe the effort and responsibilities of their job mean they should be paid at a level between police and secondary school teachers.
They blame pay rates for shortages of at least 2000 nurses.
Chan Dixon, the union organiser for the Counties Manukau District Health Board area, said Middlemore Hospital was 51 full-time equivalent nursing positions down.
About 150 of the Auckland board's 2500 positions are vacant, and Waikato has 39 vacancies out of 1687 positions.
Ms Dixon said the Middlemore shortfall meant staff were caring for more patients as it was not always possible to get bureau nurses to plug the gaps.
The emergency department was a "crisis area", with one nurse leaving every week. Stress accounted for at least half the resignations.
Critically ill patients were seen immediately, but a lack of beds meant some patients waited up to 16 hours.
"Patients and nurses are at risk. One of the problems in an area like ED is that ... nurses cop abuse from patients and visitors who are frustrated about the time it is taking to be seen and move through."
"One nurse said, 'It gets to the stage you can't bear to look the patient in the eye. They are still in ED but you can't do anything about it'."
The board's director of nursing, Dale Oliff, said the shortage was the worst it had been for two years and nurses were under pressure.