‘That’s the scale of the injustice’ – NZNO won’t back down on back pay

May 12, 2022

After a “clear and strong” member mandate to turn the district health boards’ pay equity proposal over to the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) to determine backpay, senior nurse rates and how to safely cement pay equity into the system, NZNO chief executive Paul Goulter shares his views.

Paul Goulter

I had not long been NZNO’s new chief executive, when frustration over the failure to include full backpay, as promised by district health boards (DHBs) in the 2020 collective agreement, boiled over amongst our members.

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Their proposal fell way short — not only in back pay, but also in ensuring pay equity would be safely enshrined for the profession, and considering senior nurse rates too.

The extent of member upset — robustly expressed on social media as well as through our own delegates — over the backdating was a clear statement that there seemed to be a gap between what was being proposed and what members’ expectations were.

I do understand the sheer scale of what NZNO is claiming needs to be paid to our DHB membership, but that’s the scale of the injustice.

I understand the upset and frustration of our members, — they have been waiting years for this. For the last two multi-employer collective agreements (MECAs) a promise to backpay was part of the settlement. So when they feel that promise hasn’t been delivered, such a response is entirely predictable and understandable.

The trick was to find out whether or not we could establish whether those expectations were well-founded legally, which would oblige all parties to ensure the final offer did provide for full backdating — and that was what our legal review confirmed.

Pay rates across all nursing sectors

This is is just the start, as far as I’m concerned. NZNO will be seeking to establish single pay rates for registered nurses, health-care assistants and senior nurses right across the whole system.  We’re going to go hard to get those rates across all sectors, whether it’s iwi/Māori, primary or aged care providers, through pay parity mechanisms.

I do understand the sheer scale of what NZNO is claiming needs to be paid to our DHB membership, but that’s the scale of the injustice.

We’re going to go hard to get those rates across all sectors, whether it’s iwi, primary or aged care providers, through pay parity mechanisms.

There are essentially three issues that need to be resolved and our members have been really clear on these:

  • Full backdating to December 31, 2019. Our members clearly feel they are entitled to this and our legal review supports this view. It found that an obligation to back pay had been entered into by the DHBs, and the Equal Pay Act (1972) prevents that from being diminished in any way. This is the biggest issue and we’ll be pushing this as hard and urgently as we can. These are long-standing and critical issues and we hope they’ll be dealt with as soon as possible.
  • Ensuring a mechanism is in place to maintain pay equity into the future.
  • The effect of new pay equity rates on senior nurses and their rates. In separate meetings, they’re telling us their jobs have been under-valued on the basis of gender and would like further evaluation.

In all these matters, we seem to be at loggerheads with the DHBs, and so members have decided to just hand the whole lot over to the ERA to determine.

Possible outcomes

The Employment Relations Authority (ERA) may push us to enter into mediation or facilitation, where the parties (unions NZNO and the PSA, the Crown, DHBs and Ministry of Health) get around the table again to discuss the issues. We can’t predict that but we would enter into that in good faith, as always. We now have a clear mandate from members, we’re pretty clear about what needs to happen as an outcome from any mediation or facilitation.

Members stepping up

Overall, we have been very pleased with the high level of member reflection and engagement throughout this process so far and hope to see this continue as we push for pay parity across sectors. We had high numbers participating in the poll over the proposed settlement, and a clear mandate as a result. We have also had high numbers of delegates and members participating in our online meetings, who felt able to be free and frank, quite correctly.

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We have also worked really well with our fellow union, the Public Service Association (PSA) throughout this, so that’s been really useful also.

Meeting our members online and visiting their regions recently, members made it clear to me that they’ve been really pleased to see NZNO taking a firm line on this matter.