Sasha Borissenko: Health sector strike looms amid Omicron wave

OPINION:

With the cesspit of anti-mandate protesters at Parliament, the dramatic rise of Omicron cases in the community, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s times like these where you just want to stay clear of the news and people, generally.

To make things worse, the allied, public health, scientific, and technical professions in the health sector are striking – which I find of little surprise seeing as essential workers have been running flat tack for more than two years and resources remain scarce.

After 15 months of failed negotiations 10,000 people will go on strike on March 4. The group includes contact-tracers, respiratory physios, lab workers, and critical health staff.

After over 90 per cent of members voted to reject an initial offer in December 2021, the Public Service Association and District Health Boards met on Wednesday February 2 to continue negotiations.

The DHBs presented a new offer but, with a minimal increase on the original offer for a significantly longer term, this fell far short of health workers’ expectations with some describing it as an insult, PSA organiser Will Matthews said in a statement.

Subsequently, almost 97 per cent of PSA members across the country voted to legally strike.

They’re striking to say no to low pay, unequal treatment, to being understaffed and overworked, and being told to wait longer than their colleagues “to get what they deserve”, Matthews said in an official email to members.

The PSA have said some members are facing critical workforce shortages, with some allied health departments reporting vacancies of up to 66 per cent.

The PSA is calling on Health Minister Andrew Little to address wage progression, provide guarantees on safe staffing, recruitment, and retention, and to enable the settlement of the Allied Pay Equity claim through adequate resourcing.

According to Employment New Zealand, strikes and lockouts are legitimate actions used by parties to advance their bargaining aims. Employees can only legally strike if they relate to bargaining for a collective agreement.

Employees can’t go on strike if less than 40 days have passed since the bargaining was initiated; there is a current collective agreement; or if it relates to a personal grievance, dispute, freedom of association, against a court order; and if it’s an essential service and the right notice hasn’t been given.

While this strike is legal, in the case it is not, parties can apply to the Employment Court for an injunction to stop it or to sue for loss.

It means those who lawfully strike can’t be disciplined or discriminated against for exercising their legal right to strike. Strikers won’t be paid for the striking period. Managers shouldn’t be asking individuals if they’re striking – that’s the job of the union to give notice.

“The point of the action is to disrupt work and demonstrate just how much they need the expertise and hard work of their workforce to get the work done,” a PSA document read.

Employers can’t employ new staff to do the work of striking employees unless the work is necessary for health and safety reasons. And non-PSA members can be asked to cover the work, but they can refuse.

In a Facebook post Green Party MP Jan Logie said the workers don’t want to be striking but they’re exhausted and feeling desperate and worried about the sustainability of the public health system.

“[Strikers] spoke about chronic staff shortages, inexperienced staff working jobs beyond their skill, staff regularly working 16-hour shifts, [and] staff having heart attacks and accidents from exhaustion.

“The last two years they’ve been working incredibly hard and now we’re facing the Omicron wave and the years that it will take us as communities to recover from the trauma of what we’ve all been and are still going through. They will be essential in that work.

“The Government sets the bargaining parameters. This issue needs to be resolved by the Government. We need to pay them more and ensure adequate staffing which goes together. We all need them to get this resolved,” she said.

The situation is all too familiar with the number of nurses who striked last year. It strikes me as strange that the health sector is forever underfunded, seeing as every person will at some point in their lives engage with the system.

Personal stories and anecdotal evidence tends to pave the way for change – particularly in New Zealand – yet the political will has traditionally lagged behind. My only conclusion is that the health sector is dominated by women and it comes down to failing to value female-dominated professions.

The patriarchy may be at fault but will supply and demand as a result of Omicron mean politicians will listen? Here’s hoping.

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