Standing up for equal pay in the South Island

In a move to stop the historical undervaluation of administrative work, the PSA has tabled an equal pay claim for South Island DHB admin and clerical workers in their latest round of bargaining.

scalesAccording to Statistics New Zealand, 93.6 percent of all secretaries and keyboard operating clerks are women, 90.1 percent of client information clerks are women and 80.5 percent of numerical clerks are women.

The three occupations have historically been female-dominant domains with deep underlying stereotypes – such as women’s natural ability to multi-task, show empathy and strong organisational skills – perpetuating the idea that the skills aren’t valuable.

They are also severely underpaid, with many admin workers on just above the minimum wage despite the skills and experience they bring to their roles.

Those supporting the claim say administrative work is undervalued and the skills required are poorly understood by hospital management. Many workers struggle with excessive workloads because of the government-imposed cap on employment of admin staff.

They are divided by more employment agreements than any other DHB occupational group, and this contributes to most being poorly paid.

Of the top 20 occupations of women, seven are clerical administrative roles. According to a pay and employment equity review conducted in 2007-2008, 93 per cent of these roles in the country’s DHBs were held by women.

A wide range of skills

Nancy McShane is one of the admin workers rallying for equal pay. She works as a medical secretary in the acute inpatient service at Hillmorton Hospital in Christchurch.

“A common misconception people have about my job is that I just type letters all day,” she says.

“While a large part of my work does involve typing and collating documents there are other things I do which are equally, if not more, important than that.

“To work in mental health – no matter what position you are employed in – excellent communication skills, an ability to empathise and stay calm and focused under pressure are absolutely essential.”

A key role McShane plays is providing daily support and encouragement for clinical staff: helping them to de-stress, have a laugh or simply letting them know they have someone they can turn to when they get overloaded.

“We have many young doctors here from overseas who are miles from friends and family and can sometimes be quite socially isolated. I’m very aware of the potential vulnerability this can create...I think the importance of this and the contribution it makes to patient care is often underestimated.”

Working in mental health is not an easy job, she says.

“You can experience challenging and unusual situations and behaviours that are not the norm for most office environments. On her first day of work, one of my admin colleagues was cornered in her office by a patient wielding an axe. Most people would walk out after such an experience – she didn’t.”

McShane has been in the job for about eight years and says she works with “some pretty amazing individuals” who give “150 per cent” to help some of the most vulnerable people in Christchurch.
“Not just the long-term mental health patients we care for, but also every day Cantabrians, young and old, who are increasingly in need of mental health support as a result of everything they have been through these past six years.

“Adult admissions have soared by 60% and for children it is 40%. Our schools are overwhelmed by the number of children experiencing serious behavioural issues that are earthquake related.

“Life’s usual challenges don’t stop just because you’ve been through a natural disaster – relationships still fail, businesses go under, bereavements occur.

“People can forget that our mental health staff are often still struggling with earthquake-related issues of their own. They have soldiered on and given their absolute best.”

Many of McShane’s colleagues are earning as little as $17 an hour and, unlike some people working on similar rates, they can’t work extra shifts to top up their incomes.

“We are performing skilled work but this is not reflected in our rates of pay. We are feeling increasingly devalued.

“Many of us buy our clothes second-hand, we worry that we are unable to save for our retirements, our ability to participate in social activities is very limited because we struggle to meet even our own basic costs of living.

“We need to start valuing the key strengths and attributes women bring to the workplace far better and start paying a level of remuneration that more accurately reflects our contribution. By raising equal pay at the bargaining table we are opening up conversations and helping everyone to think about this issue more deeply.”

On the frontline

At Wairau Hospital in the Nelson Marlborough DHB, secretary Donna Husek is also backing the equal pay claim.

A typical workday for her and other admin colleagues involves booking outpatient, pre-admission and theatre lists for consultants and nurses, rescheduling appointments, transcribing consultant letters, and filing all of patient documentation (which must be adhered to within strict timelines).

She has worked in the administrative health field, both private and public, for ten years.

“I am the first point of call for patients and other staff who use me as a sounding board for all of their concerns. Due to frustration with waiting times some of these patients can become quite verbally aggressive and believe it is up to me to make sure they are seen in a clinic ASAP…”

She also liaises with GP practices, laboratories, other DHBs, and organisations like the Cancer Society.

“During the course of the day I can be attending to all that simultaneously. Prioritising, time management and multitasking skills are paramount. I have to demonstrate professionalism, empathy, listening skills, and have knowledge of the health sector and how the DHBs work in with the Government for funding.”

In this current bargaining round the PSA members put forward a claim for equal pay, and asked the southern DHBs if they would lobby Government to achieve this.

“By doing this we have let them know that it is something we are serious about and if need be we could take it to the Employment Court in future.

“Many would say that the fact this is a female-dominated role would come down to the fact that women are better at desk jobs, that we are more organised, that we have empathy when talking to people.

“While that may be the case in many people’s eyes, males are just as capable at doing the job as females are. Why is it that we are not paid at the same level? It’s just not right.” 

By Jess McAllen