PSA members and local communities joined forces in February to protest restructuring that threatened hundreds of jobs and quality client care.
While the restructuring by HealthCare NZ is now set to go ahead the protests have thrown a spotlight on issues besetting the home care and support sector.
As forty or so people gathered in the blazing Wairarapa sun, only two had ever joined a protest before in their lives. Within twenty minutes, they were leading their own chants and you could hear them for miles.
There were similar scenes around New Zealand during February as workers at HealthCare NZ, a NZ Health Group subsidiary protested their employer.
The first issue at stake was jobs. Regional jobs, specifically. Jobs for people in communities, who know their colleagues, know their clients, and are familiar with the geography and conditions of their area.
NZ Health Group proposed to cut up to 200 jobs in the regions and replace them with a call centre in Auckland. Local offices would be gutted of service managers, coordinators and admin staff, putting the care of vulnerable clients at risk.
As PSA national secretary Kerry Davies said at the time: “We believe the company is making the wrong decision for the wrong reasons… It is not good enough that a mostly female workforce in regional New Zealand is being treated this way.”
Staff were notified of the plan by HCNZ chief executive Vanessa Dudley on a teleconference. After making her announcement, she hung up and left shell-shocked workers on the line with no opportunity to ask questions.
As anger spread around the country, the company attempted to smooth things over with a traveling roadshow. Senior management would go from office to office to explain to people why their jobs had to be slashed.
Workers, clients and community members responded by taking to the streets and making their displeasure known.
Protests were held in Hamilton, Masterton, Oamaru, Tauranga, Hawera, Auckland, Gore, Palmerston North, Napier, Dunedin and Christchurch.
Hundreds of staff, clients and community members also flooded the PSA with emails expressing their concerns, and many reached out to the media.
Christchurch woman Abigail Woods cares full time for her daughter Ashley, who has cerebral palsy.
They chose HCNZ to help with this because they appreciated the presence of a hands-on team in the area, and spoke out to Stuff fearing the cuts would jeopardise Ashley’s support.
"Without the support of service managers and their team in Christchurch we would be just a number to a company,” said Abigail.
“We wouldn't get that individual, personal service. The care we get is exceptional, and our service manager is like gold."
As Working Life went to print in mid-March, NZ Health Group announced it intends to proceed with the planned restructure, eliminating at least 100 jobs around the country and damaging established relationships between company, carer and client.
Some parts of the proposal have changed though, with about 30 jobs that were going to be cut retained. There will also now be a second call centre in Dunedin.
Those who protested and gave feedback should feel proud the company was pressured to make some concessions.
In a statement HealthCare NZ blames the decision to go ahead with job cuts on funding constraints.
‘The current funding circumstances facing our business are a serious concern to our Board. For years contractual funding from funding agencies has seen very limited increases; many contracts are now very tight.’
But the PSA does not accept this slash-and-burn approach to regional jobs is an appropriate or necessary response to budget problems.
“We opposed this restructure initially and we still oppose it. Even one job lost is one too many,” says Kerry.
“However, we made an impact and our efforts will continue. Thanks to the nationwide wave of protest and the determination of workers and community members to stand together, a number of jobs have been saved.
“Our efforts turn now to supporting those facing redundancy, but with bargaining coming up soon for the HCNZ support workers collective agreement you can rest assured this issue will not go away any time soon.”
The restructure of HealthCare NZ by NZ Health Group is symptomatic of wider issues in the home care and support sector.
Earlier in the summer, a provider hit the headlines for failing to provide care to a woman with disabilities.
Also in January Hawkes Bay DHB was forced to apologise after sending out letters to 600 elderly people telling them it would be good for their health if they did their own chores.
We are also of the view that the provider Nurse Maude made cuts to workers’ hours and client time.
The PSA will continue to advocate for a better funding system for the sector and better conditions for its workers.
“We thank all our members who have bravely taken a stand to bring these issues to nationwide attention,” says Kerry.
Featured photo credit: Daniel Hines, SunLive
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