Healthline and telehealth nurses to strike over pay ‘cut’ from profitable bosses

September 8, 2023

Nurses who take calls around the clock from some of our most vulnerable have voted to go on a 24-hour strike next week, after an offer they describe as an effective pay cut.

NZNO delegate Bruce Tomlinson said members had voted for 24-hour strike action on September 15-16, after a nationwide rally last week.

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National telehealth service Whakarongorau Aotearoa runs more than 40 phone or web-based support services — many around mental health and addiction — including Healthline, 1737 Need to talk?, Shine domestic abuse helpline, the National Poisons Centre, RecoveRing alcohol and drug support, ambulance triaging for low-acuity 111 calls, after-hours support for general practices, to name a few.

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‘Our battle is over having decent wage increases, and we are committed to achieving an increase that reflects what we are worth and mitigates the cost-of-living crisis all our members face.’

Whakarongorau staff rally in Auckland.

“We are the voice on the other side of your calls 24 hours a day, and seven days a week,”  Tomlinson said.

Bruce Tomlinson protesting at Kumara junction near Hokitika last week.

Despite its profits and a seven per cent inflation rate over the past year, Whakarongorau had not budged on its 2.5 per cent offer, Tomlinson said. This followed six months of bargaining, after the previous collective expired a year ago.

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“Our battle is over having decent wage increases, and we are committed to achieving an increase that reflects what we are worth and mitigates the cost-of-living crisis all our members face.”

Tomlinson said the offer amounted to a pay cut in real life terms and came despite millions being paid out to its shareholders, primary health organisations, Pegasus Health and ProCare.

‘We have made an offer that reflected what funding we have received and what we have been able to afford — the unions and their members have rejected this.’

Pegasus Health’s 2022 annual report (p35) describes a “very strong performance” from Whakarongorau for its response during COVID as a financial highlight with “extraordinary volumes” of activity.

A Whakarongorau spokesperson confirmed to Kaitiaki a $7.4 million surplus related to the 2022 financial year was paid each to ProCare and Pegasus — a total of $14.8 million.

NZNO delegates Bruce and his wife Rachel Tomlinson, also a telehealth nurse, with PSA colleagues protesting at Kumara junction on the West Coast last week.

Meanwhile, colleagues were leaving for better paid roles at Te Whatu Ora “or further afield, like Australia”, said Tomlinson, who has worked at the telehealth service for eight years.

After a nationwide rally last week, members had now decided to take strike action, he said.

Staff paid ‘as much as we can’
Anna Campbell

Whakarongorau chief employee experience officer Anna Campbell said the telehealth service aimed to pay staff “as much as we can”.

“We have made an offer that reflected what funding we have received and what we have been able to afford — the unions and their members have rejected this.”

A social enterprise, Whakarongorau had used its 2015-2020 surpluses to repay ProCare and Pegasus for loans to set up the national telehealth service, Campbell said.

Since then, any surpluses had been used to improve health outcomes across Auckland and Canterbury regions, or reinvested to keep all three organisations sustainable and equitable, she said. In the last two years, Whakarongorau had replaced its telephone system, developed online support options, and provided tikanga, cultural safety and online training for staff, among other things.

NZNO telehealth nurse Phillippa Kenny at the Auckland rally.

Whakarongorau is owned by ProCare, a collective of more than 180 GP practices across Auckland, and Pegasus Health, a Canterbury-based charitable primary health organisation.

Tomlinson said an estimated one in three New Zealanders had been in contact with Whakarongorau at some point, and staff kept people out of emergency departments, GP practices and provided timely help to people in distress.

Need was particularly high at times of crises such as the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings, 2020/21 COVID pandemic and natural disasters such as flooding in Hawke’s Bay earlier this year.

About 300 Whakarongorau staff, represented by both Tōpūtangi Tapuhi Kaitiaki o Aotearoa — NZNO and the Public Service Association (PSA), held rallies in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch on September 1.

Share your message of support with: #thenurseweneed.

Supporters of telehealth staff in Wellington.