FAQs – Why I’m voting ‘No’ on the DHB offer to PSA Nurses

PSA members in Mental Health and Addiction Services – including these workers at Porirua Hospital – voted to reject a DHB offer and take nationwide industrial action in 2005.

After more than ten months of MECA bargaining, PSA nurses have finally received a formal offer from the DHBs. Below I share what sits behind my decision to vote “No”. If I was to offer my decision in a sentence, it would look a little like this:

“To me, the offer does not adequately advance either fair pay or safe staffing and as such I wish to stand alongside my colleagues in other heath unions and continue to fight for a sustainable health system with safe and valued staff.“

But summary sentence aside, I do invite you to read the longer more considered version because the stakes have never been higher than right now, with our health system in crisis and our workforce at breaking point.

Background

PSA members covered by the MECA for the three Auckland DHBs, or the separate MECA for the rest of New Zealand, can now log in (at this link) to access the proposed Terms of Settlement and an FAQ document from our bargaining team. Voting on whether to accept or reject the offer will run from September 9 to 16.  

The PSA bargaining team is recommending acceptance of the offer, but adds: “It is solely the responsibility of members to vote, and the outcome of that collective vote determines the decision, as per any democratic organisation”. 

I encourage each member to carefully consider the Terms of Settlement and FAQ document and arrive at their own decision on how to vote. Union decisions are strongest when they are made by all of us.

But decisions are also best when they are debated and discussed. This article may even be updated, in light of any new information or different perspectives shared at Zoom meetings being held this week for PSA members at my DHB. It is in this spirit of constructive discussion and debate that I offer my carefully considered decision and rationale.

Decision Basis

As I see it, PSA nurses and NZNO nurses share the same aspirations:

  • A pay increase which recognises our value and retains staff in the DHBs, and
  • Meaningful action to address the unsafe staffing levels now jeopardising the wellbeing of nurses and health consumers alike. 

I’ve tested the offer against our key aspirations and below is my personal take on how the offer meets these key claims. 

Shouldn’t we be standing together with NZNO Nurses and other health workers? 

Yes. This for me is the first obvious question, because when union members stand together in the DHBs – and across the wider public sector – everyone is better off. 

Nurses belonging to NZNO, midwives belonging to the MERAS union and senior doctors belonging to ASMS have all rejected their DHB pay offers. Nurses and midwives have taken nationwide industrial action, while the senior doctors held stopwork meetings across all DHBs for the first time since 2007 and are being surveyed on further actions they would support to get a fair settlement. 

The health system is teetering on the edge of a crisis. Our colleagues have realised that now is the time to step up. By voting “No” and joining with them, we can strengthen the efforts to fix things.

Is this pay offer similar to the offer which NZNO members rejected?

The PSA bargaining team says, “Yes, it is similar on the salary offer”. But let’s be honest. The offer (for a full-time employee, before tax) consists of: 

  • $1,800 increase on base rates from 1 September 2021, funded out of DHB operating budgets
  • $1,100 lump sum payment, in lieu of back pay 
  • $4,000 increase on base rates, as an interim pay equity payment 
  • $6,000 lump sum in advance of pay equity (PE), which will be deducted from your PE backpay; and 
  • A possible additional $1,000 lump-sum payment – if a PE settlement is not agreed by 30 November 2021. 

This is not just “similar” to the NZNO pay offer. It’s virtually identical. The only difference in the numbers is that NZNO members were offered an extra hundred dollars in their lump sum – $1,200 in lieu of back pay, rather than $1,100. 

30,000 of our NZNO colleagues and co-workers have decided that their offer wasn’t good enough. I’m with them. 

Should pay equity be part of our MECA bargaining? 

No. Pay equity should not be part of our MECA bargaining, for a number of reasons. Firstly, PE and MECA bargaining are separate process – and it’s not just me who says so. 

At a media conference on 17 August, Health Minister Andrew Little said, “It’s important to clarify there have been two separate processes under way to improve on nurses’ pay. The first is the pay equity process, which started in 2018.

“The second process for nurses’ pay is the conventional renewal of applicable collective agreements. These negotiations generally focus on a cost of living adjustment for pay rates, as well as addressing other conditions in the collective agreement.”

“Nurses, certainly since we committed in 2018,” he added, “have always been going to get a pay equity deal.” 

The increase in base rates and back pay for PSA members under the PE deal is not affected by this MECA bargaining, and shouldn’t be mixed up with it. MECA bargaining, in the words of the Health Minister, should “focus on a cost of living adjustment”. 

The Health Minister also said on 17 August that he had written to the unions, the DHBs and the Ministry of Health and invited them to commence negotiations on the pay equity claim – separate from the MECA negotiations – “as soon as possible”. “I would hope that by the end of the year, we should be at, or close to an agreement.”

Voting to accept the DHB offer would mean payment of the lump sum “as soon as practicable” after 1 October 2021. This probably only brings payment forward by a matter of weeks, at most. But at the same time, it would have serious negative consequences for a lot of other PSA members. 

If PSA nurses accept an offer with a $1,800 increase on base rates – which is below inflation for most – and which is padded out with pay equity money, then it will set a benchmark for other groups. Around 13,000 of our PSA colleagues in allied health are also in bargaining with the DHBs at the moment, and they’re not in line for an advance payment of pay equity money. A “Yes” vote by PSA nurses would increase pressure on them to settle for less than a cost of living adjustment – to say nothing of the negative impact on PSA members in the wider public sector. 

Are the DHBs at least funding a cost of living increase? 

No. Stripped of the pay equity money, which is coming to PSA members through the separate PE process very soon anyway, the increase in base pay rates in the DHB offer is just $1,800 (pro rata, before tax, over 27 months).

In percentage terms, that equates to annual pay increases ranging from 1.0 percent (for a Community Mental Health or Public Health Nurses on their top step) to 1.9 percent (for a Mental Health Assistant on Step 2, noting that it is proposed to delete Step 1of the salary scale). 

The cost of living, as measured by CPI, rose by 3.3 percent in the year to June and the NZIER “consensus forecast” says it will stay above 2.0 percent for the next year, too. In other words, the pay offer funded by the DHBs falls short of a cost of living adjustment, for all PSA members. 

Isn’t the PSA opposed to the Government’s pay freeze? 

In the lead-up to the Budget in May 2021, the Government announced two more years of “pay restrictions” for workers in the public sector. The announcement took the form of a Government Workforce Policy Statement and Public Service Pay Guidance from the Public Service Commission.

Both of these documents stressed that pay equity (for those public sector workers covered by a PE claim) is a separate matter. The expected pay restrictions applied only to base rates in collective agreements (such as our MECAs), or in individual employment agreements. 

Our union immediately voiced strong opposition and demanded that public sector employers must value our work: “The PSA is taking a stand against the unacceptable Government pay restrictions.”

A delegation of PSA leaders met with Government ministers and advocated for “cost of living increases for all union members covered by collective agreements.”

“Change happens when ordinary people are prepared to make it happen,” said National Secretary Kerry Davies.

The current DHB offer to PSA nurses is virtually identical to the offer made to NZNO nurses in July – and Health Minister Andrew Little clarified at the time that that offer was in line with the Government’s pay restrictions. The offer to PSA nurses by the DHBs through collective bargaining is also in line with the pay restrictions – and it doesn’t represent a cost of living increase, either. 

As PSA members, we need to be prepared to make change happen. Let’s keep taking a stand against the unacceptable Government pay restrictions, insist on at least a cost of living increase through our collective bargaining and reject this sub-par DHB offer. 

Is this best we can get? 

No, I personally don’t believe this is the best offer we can get – and it appears that our bargaining team aren’t convinced, either. The Terms of Settlement which our negotiators have signed mention that if there’s a “group covered by another health sector MECA bargaining, and that other group arrives at a subsequent settlement that is materially different to the settlement agreed with the PSA”, then we’ll meet and discuss a proposal to “vary” our MECA.

If we really think that the nurses, midwives and doctors who are now fighting hard might get a better deal, then as unionists we’re morally obliged to help in that fight. It would be wrong to sit on the sidelines, letting them do all the work, and then try to claim the benefits afterwards. Let’s join together now, and get the best for all. 

Will the commitments on safe staffing make a real difference? 

The FAQ from our negotiating team barely mentions safe staffing. But I know that for many PSA nurses like me, the daily experience of being dangerously understaffed and seeing colleagues leave for Australia or quit the profession altogether must be addressed through this MECA round.

The Terms of Settlement mentions three “nursing wide initiatives [which] will be initiated as part of this settlement.” But once again, let’s be honest. The Minister of Health has now stated that an independent evaluation of CCDM implementation and effectiveness is going to happen anyway. And the other two nursing wide initiatives (a Ministry of Health recruitment campaign and a $5 million CCDM Progression Fund) will also go ahead, regardless of what happens with our MECAs. 

In reality, there’s only one thing in the DHB offer to address our dire situation – another steering committee. It will meet face to face, according to its proposed terms of reference, at least three times a year, with some virtual meetings in between. At least three people from the union, and three from the DHBs, will be present. 

Does this really sound like a realistic response to the crisis? 

If you believe the DHB offer will make a real difference, then you’ve got more faith in steering committees than I do. I’m voting “No”, because the scale of the crisis demands a solution far better than this.

Should this DHB offer have been recommended?

Yes it probably should have been – under the circumstances. This answer might surprise. But our bargaining team have given a clear explanation of why they’re recommending an offer for PSA members which is – at the very least – “similar” to the offer put to NZNO members in July, with no recommendation on its acceptance.

“PSA has a policy that our bargaining teams always make a recommendation, to either accept or reject an employer’s offer coming out of bargaining”, they said in their FAQ.

This was also the policy in NZNO, up until 2018. In fact, making a recommendation was a requirement for all NZNO bargaining teams, under the NZNO Constitution.

But after the NZNO MECA negotiating team made three recommendations for members to accept DHB offers, and after these offers were all rejected, NZNO members decided that the policy needed to change. At the union’s AGM in 2018, NZNO delegates voted to update the Constitution so that bargaining teams could no longer recommend employer offers.

If PSA nurses reject this MECA offer, perhaps it will be time to look at PSA policy, as well. 

Published by grantbrookes

Kia ora! I’m Grant Brookes, a Nurse, Trade Unionist and NZNO past President now living in Wellington, New Zealand with my partner and two children and blogging at unionnursegrant.org. Since graduating in 1996, I’ve practised nursing in five cities in three countries. I’ve belonged to four nursing unions – and been a rep in three of them. This is my new blog. There’s more about me and my time as President at nznogrant.org.

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