10,000 healthcare workers vote to strike as Omicron wave hits

Thousands of health workers, including Covid contact tracers and testing lab staff, have voted to strike across the country as Omicron cases are expected to peak soon.

By Justin Hu

Public health allied, scientific and technical workers are striking over low pay, poor working conditions and equal treatment with other health professions, the Public Service Association (PSA) said on Thursday. ).

Two 24-hour strikes are scheduled for early March, with 10,000 health workers planning to step down after 15 months of “unsuccessful” negotiations.

“The depth of sentiment from our members and the support for industrial action nationwide is unprecedented,” said PSA organizer Will Matthews. “We are now in a position where a strike is our only remaining option to get DHBs and the government to listen.”

More than 70 groups of health workers plan to strike on March 4 and 18, including contact tracers and lab staff processing Covid-19 tests.

“New Zealand needs each of these professionals. And yet many of them don’t even earn a living wage,” Matthews said.

The PSA said some members are facing critical labor shortages, with some Allied Health Services reporting vacancies of up to 66%.

“DHBs have offered to change all severance rates to living wages but have not agreed to implement solutions to allow for fair wage progression – despite offering provisions that allow this for low-wage workers in d ‘other health professions,’ the PSA said.

There have already been reports of exhausted lab staff at sites where Covid-19 tests are being processed.

In a statement late Thursday, Health Minister Andrew Little said he understood the “frustration” of workers who voted to strike.

‘As I understand it, the DHBs will now ask the Labor Relations Authority to make it easier to try to resolve the remaining issues.’

He said unions should take the opportunity to avoid strikes.

“I urge the DHBs to do everything they can to come to the party, get along and come to an agreement to prevent strike action from happening… The reality is that most workers and health workers would prefer not to take industrial action.”

The health minister also said PSA pay equity claims should be dealt with separately.

Earlier during a media stand-up, Little said he was not told about the strike. The Minister of Health answered questions about the government’s recently published report on the shortage of staff in public hospitals.

The report, which focused on nursing staffing levels, found that national workforce planning had contributed to a severe shortage of hospital staff.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the peak of the Omicron wave is expected in late March, but the precise size of the outbreak would be difficult to predict due to the deployment of the booster.

Modeling by Te Pūnaha Matatini modellers, under the new title of Covid-19 Modeling Aotearoa, revealed that between 30 and 70% of the country would be infected during the Omicron wave.

Between 1,200 and 2,600 would require hospital care at the peak of the surge, modelers say, representing up to 20% of the country’s hospital bed capacity.

While there could be between 10,000 and 20,000 new cases reported daily, the worst-case scenario could see 50,000 people infected every day.

During Phases 2 and 3 of the Government Omicron Management Plan, contact tracers are expected to focus on contact with people in vulnerable communities who are at increased risk of serious illness.

PCR tests that would require laboratory capacity should also be used primarily on priority populations.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Chief Health Officer Ashley Bloomfield said New Zealand was only at the start of its Omicron wave.

“We are definitely on the right track. If we look at the experience of other countries, there is no doubt that the number of cases will continue to rise.”

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