(Photo: Supplied)

Light at end of tunnel for Lifewise workers, two years on

After almost two years in limbo, aged care workers at the Methodist-run charity Lifewise have struck a deal that both sides hope will put an end to recent industrial action, Charlotte Muru-Lanning reports.

An agreement has been made between charity Lifewise and aged care workers who have been striking on and off for months, the Spinoff understands. The long-running dispute has centred on conditions and demands that workers be available for hours far beyond those that end up on the clock, according to the union representing the workers.

The dispute pre-dates the emergence of the Covid-19 crisis, during which Lifewise home care workers were classified as essential workers. Their labour includes support to seniors and people with disabilities, wellbeing checks, helping with grocery shopping and housework, assistance with showering, applying blister packs and administering medication. 

After four months of on-and-off strikes and pickets, a negotiating session on Friday ended with an informal agreement between workers and their employer. “Since negotiations today, an in-principle agreement has been reached to settle the collective bargaining,” said Kirsty McCully, the director of E tū, the union representing the workers, on Friday. Today, the one-year collective agreement was made official.

The group of striking workers, overwhelmingly made up of Pasifika women, previously said the organisation had continually refused to negotiate with them on their requests for increased sick leave, bereavement leave and guaranteed hours. While it doesn’t meet all their original demands, today’s agreement represents a breakthrough for the workers.

The deal made today represents a huge step forward after nearly two years of negotiations. The agreement that comes into effect this Thursday will see the creation of a bereavement leave fund, an increase in accrued sick leave days, long service payments to workers at ten year intervals and a commitment from Lifewise to work on a process toward recouping guaranteed hours when workers lose clients and therefore lose paid hours – “a fundamental issue”, said McCully. These terms fall short of workers’ initial demands, but they’re an improvement on their current conditions.

In a statement to The Spinoff last week, Lifewise CEO Jo Denvir said the workers’ proposals for increasing sick leave and bereavement leave couldn’t be paid for with existing funding from Auckland District Health Board. “Since we started these discussions we’ve unfortunately faced the financial impact and constraints of Covid-19, and given the funding model we have, we simply can’t afford every one of the union’s proposals.”

Last month, Lifewise threatened members with three separate lockout periods that the union was able to block with the help of its lawyers. The Lifewise response was previously described by Mcully as “the most aggressive approach in the sector [she’d] ever come across”. 

Lifewise home care workers are currently entitled to three days’ bereavement leave, and five days’ minimum sick leave – the current legal minimum. Workers were originally seeking to have this increased to five days’ bereavement leave and eight days’ sick leave. Last year, E tū union called for unrestricted sick leave for those working in aged care in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Increased bereavement leave was important to the workers because, according to McCully, the average age of the group is mid-50s. “At that point in your life, that’s when you would expect to potentially have a significant loss of either a partner or a very close family member,” she said. “Our members have responsibilities within their families, so they feel that the minimum entitlement to only three days’ bereavement leave is really quite difficult for them.”

Workers had also sought an increase in their guaranteed hours. The hours many workers are required to be available are almost double those for which they’re guaranteed they’ll be required to actually work, and therefore be paid for. Such increasingly onerous on-call expectations are an issue that McCully said is affecting workers across the whole aged care sector. 

McCully said despite the Care and Support Workers Pay Equity Settlement in 2017 improving pay rates for care workers, “their hours of work have dropped, and that means their incomes have dropped”.

(Photo: Supplied)

Lifewise worker Susie Kaio said negotiations had been stressful “mentally, physically and emotionally”. The group took strike action again last week, she said, “because we’d made no progress”.

One of her biggest concerns is how low guaranteed hours operate for Lifewise workers. According to the workers, Lifewise uses a confusing model called “the bucket model” of available and guaranteed hours. In Kaio’s case, each week she’s guaranteed 25 hours, but her availability is 42 hours. This means a lot of waiting around in her car, she said. It also creates uncertainty financially and makes it difficult to make plans week to week.

Another point of concern for the workers is that confusing way in which Lifewise calculates payment for travel time. For each appointment, 8.5 minutes is cut out and paid at a lower rate as it’s classified as travel, even though the entire period is spent with the client, they say. 

Kaio gave an example of one of her client appointments which is 15 minutes long. For this appointment, 7.5 minutes of it is paid at her full rate of $25.50 an hour, but 8.5 minutes is paid at a “travel rate” of $19.40 an hour. 

In the agreement made today, Lifewise made a commitment to “discuss” this “bucket system”, said McCully. “But that will be a work in progress.”

Another worker picketing outside Lifewise’s Mt Eden office on Thursday who declined to be named described being available from 8.30am to 3pm, five days a week. Minus lunch breaks, her availability is 30 hours a week, she said. But she’s only guaranteed 15 hours of work. “We’re available for so long and yet our guaranteed hours are so little.”

Of the informal agreement reached between the workers and Lifewise, McCully said “while this doesn’t solve all the issues, it’s a stepping stone to improved conditions”. And although the relationship between the organisation and the workers has been strained over the past four months, McCully said that the two parties had “turned a corner in their relationship”. 

McCully said working conditions are an issue for care workers across the country and that improvements will mean changes to policy and government approach in the sector overall. “It’s not about the individual workplace, it’s about the system as a whole,” she said.

Christine Faga has worked as a home carer in Auckland employed by Lifewise since her daughter was two. Now her daughter is 16 and Faga said in the intervening years, working conditions deteriorated. She managed financially because her husband has a job that pays well, but “I wouldn’t be able to do it if I was on my own”. 

“It’s great news, really positive,” said Faga of this week’s deal. “Four months of striking on and off has been stressful but I’m also glad we did protest for our rights to have fair pay and conditions.”

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