Two years since equal pay settlement, home support workers still struggling
They are mostly women, and most were paid little more than the minimum wage until 2017.
Some survived this working poverty for decades.
They did the job for different reasons, but a common theme uniting all home support workers is that they care for those in desperate need.
Unfortunately, another point they tend to have in common is difficulty in making ends meet.
Two years after a historic equal pay settlement ended long term pay discrimination against these workers, many complain they face a new struggle against shortened hours, irregular job security and inadequate resources.
The Public Service Association represents home support workers, who are employed by various private companies and not-for-profits on behalf of DHBs, ACC and the Ministry of Health.
Union members say there has been a refusal at high levels to properly fund and implement guaranteed hours of work, travel between clients and the equal pay settlement, and as a result the provider companies they work for make up the shortfall with cutbacks.
"Our members fought bravely for many years to not only improve their own pay and conditions but to improve the care and support received by their clients," says Kerry Davies, National Secretary of the PSA.
"It is outrageous and against the intentions of the 2017 equal pay settlement that some support workers now tell us they are worse off than before, because their guaranteed hours have been cut or not properly implemented."
Home support workers spend a short period of time with each client, generally an elderly or disabled person or injured person in need of help with things like housework, meal preparation and personal hygiene, to enable them to continue to live independently.
They then travel to another client’s home, in their own car and often having to use their personal cell phone for work. It is the worker’s responsibility to record all details along the way, and any mistakes can be dealt with punitively.
Employment law changes and a $2 billion government package in the wake of the 2017 equal pay settlement ensured pay rises of up to 50%, and along with agreements negotiated since 2015 led to guarantees of regular hours and compensation for travel time between clients. Prior to this, staff routinely worked under zero hour contracts.
The union says it was always the responsibility of the DHBs, ACC and the Ministry of Health to ensure adequate funding is made available to cover the costs of improved pay and conditions.
The PSA argues this has not happened, and as a result home support workers still endure precarious work with insecure incomes.
Staff still rarely receive paid meal breaks and routinely see their weekly hours reduced.
"It was never going to be a simple task implementing guaranteed hours and higher wages, but it had to be done because it’s the right thing to do," says Ms Davies.
"If something is worth doing it’s worth doing right. The Ministry of Health and other funders have taken a band aid approach, rather than living up to their end of the bargain. Provider companies have not risen to the task either, cutting client visit times to save money and shore up their profits/income. Our members have shown the patience of saints, but we’re over it."
Home support workers expected when they signed up to the 2015 ‘in between travel agreement’ that the rate they receive per kilometre would increase annually, but there has been no increase since 2015 - despite a significant rise in petrol costs.
The PSA calls on provider organisations and the sections of government responsible for funding to meet with home support workers and their unions as soon as possible, in order to develop a plan for systematic resolution of these problems.
Treated as a matter of urgency, guaranteed hours and secure incomes must be secured across the sector.
"We all want to be proud of New Zealand’s healthcare system and social safety net, and for that to be possible we need to ensure the workers who care for our most vulnerable are looked after as well," says Ms Davies.
"Everyone deserves to live with dignity. For some, that means help with things they can’t do themselves at home. For support workers, it means sufficient time to do their job and enough money every week to pay the bills and support a family. Our members deserve this as much as anyone else, and we will no longer accept endless delays and excuses."