Pay restrictions after year from hell a bitter pill for Kiwi nurses

Remember lockdown? Baking sourdough, quality time with family and pulling the dog around the block five times a day.

For registered nurse Mafile’o Talakai the experience was vastly different.

For her, the go-hard and go-early restrictions meant long hours, pressure injuries from PPE gear, and staying isolated from her vulnerable parents.

Like other front-line workers throughout New Zealand, the personal toll was high – add to it the constant fear of contracting Covid-19.

So when news hit that there would be pay restrictions for another two years the reaction was immediate.

“It was especially bad because earlier that week we had been comparing wage slips on a group chat with a colleague who had just moved to Australia,” Talakai, a nurse at Auckland Hospital, said.

“She had just got her first week’s pay and it was the same amount as what we get in a fortnight.”

Talakai, 28, has been saving for her first house but said that would be on hold if there was no pay rise.

“We felt like the work we did wasn’t valued and we were being asked to do something the private sector doesn’t have to do,” Talakai, a member of the New Zealand Nurses Association, said.

“We are already understaffed so why would you make a profession so unattractive during a pandemic when we could still have a serious outbreak?”

The pay-freeze and conditions have pushed tens of thousands of nurses from across the country to walk off the job for eight hours next month.

Talakai says she will be with them “100,000 per cent”.

Talakai said the essential industry was at breaking point with numerous colleagues making “concrete plans” to move across the ditch.

“They are not just talking about it now, they are seriously looking into it.

“[In Australia] they get twice what we get. It is so crazy and not only that they have a really great support system, they have the appropriate tools and resources needed.”

The restrictions will prevent pay rises for public servants who earn more than $100,000 a year, until 2024, and limit those available to people who earn more than $60,000 a year.

Talakai and most of her colleagues at Auckland Hospital fall between $60,000 and$100,000.

“With the pay freeze, it was all so confusing. I am between $60,000 and $100,000 and they say there will be some pay rise but we don’t know what that is.”

To receive that news after the year that was 2020 was a bitter pill to swallow for the passionate nurse.

“I live at home and my parents fall under the vulnerable population so every time I come home it is about minimising risk.”

During the height of restrictions, Talakai isolated from her parents and followed strict procedures when entering the house, showering and wiping down all communal surfaces.

“I would enter through the garage, leave my bag and shoes and go straight to the shower,” she said.

“I would disinfect all of the surfaces and then go straight to my room. I could hear my family through the walls but there was no affection, no hugs.”

At work, there were similar restrictions to reduce the risk of the spread of Covid.

“It was something I have never experienced before. Masks, PPE, social distancing, so many procedures and restrictions.

“People were still getting sick, having heart attacks, having strokes and the care for each treatment took so much more out of us because of the heightened risk and increased procedure.”

Talakai said it was hard on medical staff and their patients.

“They didn’t have their family and friends for support so we became that support.

“We were working longer hours and more shifts because vulnerable staff couldn’t come in.

“Then everyone was leaving with dents on their foreheads and noses, behind their ears.”

This week union representatives met with government officials to defend their members’ right to “to be treated in good faith while negotiating their multi-employer collective agreement with the district health boards”.

Glenda Alexander from the New Zealand Nurses Organisation said it was ironic they met on the eve of International Nurses Day.

“This flies in the face of the massive contribution nurses, midwives, health care assistants and kaimahi hauora in Aotearoa New Zealand and around the world have made during the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.”

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