Government rejects aged care fears

Nurses on the picket line outside Wellington Hospital on day of nurses' strike action. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The Government has cast doubt on the claim that aged care homes will be negatively affected by its pay deal with nurses, Thomas Coughlan reports.

Nurses have agreed to a $520 million pay agreement with district health boards, ending months of dispute, but the aged care sector is concerned the agreement may lead to short staffing in rest homes as nurses opt to rejoin the DHB workforce.

Summerset Group chief executive Julian Cook told BusinessDesk that the pay agreement, coupled with tightened immigration settings, would add to growing pressure in the aged care sector.

Cook told BusinessDesk that DHBs needed to "look at this seriously and effectively pass on sufficient funding to allow us to match those wage increases".

But Health Minister David Clark said he doubted aged care would see a decline in its workforce as DHBs look to add 500 nurses to their staff.

Clark said there were sufficient trained nurses - including nurses who had left the profession and some who had been trained but not recruited - for aged care not to see a decline.

He did not know the exact number of trained nurses not currently in nursing work but said that each year, of the 1500 nurses trained, 500 were not given work placements immediately, suggesting there is a large dormant workforce.

A breakthrough in negotiations

Today’s breakthrough came after months of negotiation between DHBs and nurses, who finally accepted the fifth offer made to them.

NZ Nurses Organisation representative Cee Payne said turnout for the vote on the proposed agreement was high, with a “significant majority” voting in favour.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said nurses had felt undervalued over recent years, but there was more work to be done.

“This settlement will go a long way to addressing nurses’ concerns, but the Government accepts there is still more to be done to better support them,” she said.

National leader Simon Bridges said the “saga” of pay negotiations showed the Government had not managed expectations.

“I think if the Government hadn’t got their expectations out of kilter, if they had frankly been more competent and in control of this issue, we would have got there earlier.”

Bridges said the episode was just the first of more strikes to come.

“We're going to see much more striking and industrial unrest, and again the Government’s only got itself to blame for the expectations they’ve set wrongfully and I think their lack of control over these issues.”

The pay agreement with the nurses involves three pay increases of three percent, two of which take place immediately. They are followed by a third increase next year, and a commitment to a pay equity agreement designed and implemented by the end of 2019. Five hundred extra nurses will also be recruited to deal with demand.

Jim Green, chief executive of the Tairawhiti District Health Board and spokesman for all DHBs, said work would now begin to “rebuild the trust that is key to the team-based approach to patient care”.

“This is a substantial package to address the workforce issues raised by our people and part of a wider initiative to attract, develop and retain our vital nurses and midwives in their careers,” Green said.

The breakthrough in negotiations may have been an accord, brokered by Health Minister David Clark, to implement safe staffing under the Care Capacity Demand Management (CCDM) tool.