Legislation allowing pay equity claims for care and support workers will expire at the end of the year and unions are pushing for the Ministry of Health and the Public Service Commission to come to the party. 

Unions say bargaining has to start by the first week of September or the claim risks not being finalised. 

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They are waiting on the Ministry of Health to finalise its contingency paper – confirming the envelope of cash available, and for the Public Service Commission to confirm whether the claim will include all workers not just those employed by named employers under the claim.  

An historic pay equity deal reached in 2017, championed by worker Kristine Bartlett, was the start of rectifying the chronic underinvestment in the predominately female care and support workforce.  

However, the agreement included a provision a new claim could not be brought for five years. 

The Ministry of Health offered a 3 percent pay rise in lieu of a new pay equity claim, but this was rejected and a new claim was filed in July 2022 – almost five years on the dot.  

The legislation was extended at that point until December 2023 to allow for the fresh claim.  

But Public Service Association assistant secretary Melissa Woolley said it was now a race against the clock.  

“Let’s say we go to bargaining, we get a deal with the employers… we have to ratify and then a drawdown paper has to be done, which has more detailed costings about what this was actually going to cost and that has to go to Cabinet. 

“So we need a Cabinet to be formed before that can obviously happen… and who knows the outcome of the election and what potential delays may occur.” 

“We haven’t had the validation process commence yet which is a bit ridiculous to us because it’s really important that all workers get the settlement at the same time.” – Melissa Woolley, PSA

Woolley said as far as pay equity claims went, this one was tracking to be one of the fastest but there had been delays from the various government departments that fund care and support workers – referred to as the oversight group. 

“They’re not party to the claim, they oversee the claim. So when we submit reports they have the ability to ask questions and recently we’ve had some hold-ups in that process due to that oversight group asking some questions and delaying us, which has meant we’ve had to delay bargaining.  

The claim has been filed with 15 employers, covering about a third of the workforce, and workers are hopeful under the funded framework agreement that any agreement will extend to the entire sector.  

However, Woolley said work from the Public Service Commission to allow for this extension had not started yet. 

“Of course we want all of the 65,000 workers that were covered on the original claim covered by this claim, we want them all to receive the pay equity settlement at the same time, but that’s all up in the air.  

“We haven’t heard a plan around that, we haven’t had the validation process commence yet which is a bit ridiculous to us because it’s really important that all workers get the settlement at the same time.” 

The framework is government policy, not law. 

Alongside this pay equity claim another similar claim for managers and coordinators within the sector was moving much slower.  

“For example they’ll ring up a support worker to say ‘Can you go see Mr Smith between 7pm and 8pm and this is what needs to happen’, or they’re the people that will turn up when [a client] has been violent. 

“They’re the people that manage the budgets, that type of thing … they are the people in one way or another, providing support to those care and support workers.” 

“Because of the limited funding received, many of these workers do their job at or just above the minimum wage. Not by choice, but as a result of poor funding decisions by a government without a heart.” – Peter Reynolds, NZ Disability Support Network

She said delays with Te Whatu Ora and Whaikaha had lead to slow progress for this claim, which meant care and support worker managers may end up being paid less than the people they were managing. 

“When we reach the pay equity settlements for care and support workers, the impact on that workforce [is] going to be huge, because potentially the people that they manage will be being paid more than what they are as the managers. So that been hugely frustrating.” 

The letter of comfort 

Groups representing care and support worker employers and unions had asked the Government for an interim wage increase while the claim remained in progress.  

Te Whatu Ora sent a ‘Letter of comfort’ to providers offering a 5 percent funding increase and recommended it go toward wages.

However, NZ Disability Support Network, which represents disability care providers, said Te Whatu Ora could not dictate how a funding increase was spent.

Chief executive Peter Reynolds said the letter of comfort was anything but.

“It is a proposal that fails to think through all of the issues employers face and would create pandemonium. For example, what do employers do about pay increases for other staff? These employers are reliant on the funding government agencies give them. There is nothing else.”

It’s not just Te Whatu Ora that funds the various contracts delivered by care and support workers, other funders including Whaikaha, the Ministry of Social Development, ACC and Oranga Tamariki.

Since the letter of comfort all funders have proposed at least a 3 percent lift – however some have tagged it to wages while others have not.

Reynolds said the two funding proposals had been conflated.

“Te Whatu Ora in their communication with the sectors suggested the funding could be used as an interim wage increase for support workers ahead of their pay equity claim.

“That confused the two issues, of a funding increase to offset cost increases, and the pay equity claim likely to deliver a significant increase just for care and support workers in the short term.”

He said providers were angry and upset at the 3 percent offer.

“They have experienced years of disinvestment from successive governments. They support the most disadvantaged people in our community. One Kiwi in four of the population experiences disability in some form. While not all receive funded support, many do.

“These support providers employ thousands of support workers whose tireless efforts meet the needs of disabled people every day. Because of the limited funding received, many of these workers do their job at or just above the minimum wage. Not by choice, but as a result of poor funding decisions by a government without a heart.” 

Te Whatu Ora Community Health System Improvement and Innovation group manager Mark Powell said the claim did not have an expiry date, but all parties were working hard to progress a settlement by December 31.

“Work on the pay equity claim for managers and administration staff is led by the providers and the unions. Te Whatu Ora’s role is to ensure that the work of the providers in progressing the claim is in line with the Funded Sector Pay Equity Framework and the Public Service Commission Guidance.

“Te Whatu Ora is awaiting a report back from the providers on milestone five of the Government’s Funded Pay Equity Framework. This report will detail the workers covered by the claim and how the providers and unions will work together to settle the claim.”

He said with regard to Te Whatu Ora’s 5 percent fee uplift, it was a decision for providers as to how that was spent but was “Te Whatu Ora’s expectation that as much as possible will go directly to frontline staff and administrators.”

“Te Whatu Ora has been facilitating meetings between employers, unions and other government agencies to try and reach a sector wide approach to setting wage rates for care and support workers.”

“Te Whatu Ora hope to reach a sector wide approach for setting wage rates for care and support workers quickly so all parties can put all their energy into progressing the pay equity claim which is expected to deliver significant benefits to this workforce.”

Te Whatu Ora chief executive Margie Apa reiterated all parties wanted the claim settled by December 31.

She said the 5 percent increase in contract funding was one of the largest lifts ever provided and said Te Whatu Ora had worked hard to make the money available. 

She said as well as lifting wages for workers, the lift would help ease other cost pressures providers were facing. 

Emma Hatton is a business reporter based in Wellington.

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