Andrew Little gets silent treatment from nurses amid pleas for immediate payment action

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Andrew Little told nurses he wants to find a solution to their four-year struggle for pay equality.
Photo: RNZ / Rosie Gordon

Nurses protested silently over pay issues as Health Minister Andrew Little attended the Nurses Organization’s annual conference today.

Little spoke of the enormous pressure on the workforce and answered questions from union members, but some nurses were disappointed.

The minister pointed to staff shortages, with more than 3000 current hospital vacancies.

“We need to take immediate steps to fill them and we are. We have provided financial support to enable foreign qualified nurses to complete the competency assurance program,” Little told the audience.

As he spoke, five nurses stood in the back of the room holding signs with the date December 31, 2019 — the day nurses said it should fix pay equality, and the day they think their pay increase should be retroactive.

Among them was the nurse and delegate from the central region, Grant Cloughley.

“It was to politely and quietly remind the minister how annoyed the members are at the omission of the arrears,” Cloughley said.

Nurses presented their own solutions for strengthening the workforce to the minister and asked him whether Labor would introduce free study for training or aspiring nurses.

“I don’t expect us to provide full reimbursement to nurses or other health professionals,” Little said, but pointed to a freshman-free tertiary policy.

Some nurses were disappointed that the idea was shelved, including Lucy McLaren.

“There’s so much work done in the construction industry, they’ve been pulled over and trained at no cost and I think nursing could definitely benefit from that kind of focus,” she said.

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Nurses fear they will lose even more colleagues to Australia, or even to the profession altogether.

Kathryn Chapman is a community nurse in Auckland. She has ruled out a relocation of her role and region, but was concerned about the very real impact the hospital staff shortage could have on patient outcomes.

“Our Māori-whanau will go there and sit there and not tell them how bad it is and they will sit there for hours until it’s too late,” she said.

Nurses also asked the minister about a four-year battle for equal pay for men and women, a long-running dispute now before the Employment Relations Authority.

“There’s a disagreement between us,” Little said, but pointed out that he was limited in what he could say about a matter that was going through legal process.

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“It’s definitely my strong preference to find a way to fix this.”

The NZNO Kaiwhakahaere Kerri Nuku shared that Little nurses had felt unheard in the past and needed to be heard now.

Little promised to involve nurses in decision-making and said he told Te Whatu Ora to do the same.

“Hopefully it should be easier with a single organization covering the country, so I made that expectation very clear.”

Nurses said while that was promising, for them it was the action that followed those words that mattered.

“Much more progress needs to be made soon as staff are extremely stressed and exhausted. Any change needs to be accelerated,” said a nurse, who declined to be named.

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