Christchurch support workers strike against 75-hour weeks

Tim Bowron

Between January 11 and 13, around 140 support workers and nurses at Brackenridge Estate near Christchurch took part in a 48-hour strike over issues of severe understaffing and low pay.

The workers there, who look after people with serious intellectual disabilities, are members of the National Union of Public Employees and the NZ Nurses’ Organisation.

The starting rate for support workers is currently $13.34 an hour. Staff have to deal with patients who have very high needs and whose behaviour can at times be very challenging. Assaults on staff by patients are common.

Sandy, an NZNO delegate at Brackenridge, told reporters from The Spark attending the picket that it is not uncommon for nurses and support workers to work 75 hours a week (including double shifts) with only one weekend off in six. This workload is due to inadequate staffing levels and the workers’ unwillingness to let their patients and colleagues down.

Sandy said that the management of Brackenridge (which is actually a subsidiary company of the Canterbury District Health Board, funded 100% by the Ministry of Health) seems to have no incentive to do something about the staffing problem, as there is no provision for overtime rates in the current agreement. Rather than looking to attract and train new permanent staff, it simply relies on its existing staff to work longer hours.

Management had made an initial pay offer of 4%, which was later amended to 5% but only in return for cuts to training and weekend outings for patients. Unsurprisingly, when the union took the offer back to the membership it was rejected, with 95% voting to take industrial action.

During the 48-hour strike the mood on the picket lines was very positive, with members of the local community as well as the families of patients at the facility dropping by to offer their support.

Since the strike ended it has been revealed that Brackenridge management is now employing up to three agency workers from the Christchurch Nursing Bureau every fortnight to fill gaps in the staffing roster.

Given that agency staff are prohibitively expensive, this would seem to cast doubt on Brackenridge Estate’s claim to have no money all to pay the sorts of wages which would actually help attract new permanent staff as well as compensate those who do work beyond their regular contracted hours.

Meanwhile, the unions involved have given warning that unless an improved offer from the employer is tabled soon, further industrial action is likely.

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