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SocietyNovember 8, 2019

It’s not over: Psychologists say DHB strikes will be back on soon

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Last week three months of striking ended with no resolution. But psychologists say the fight isn’t over.

In July, psychologists in district health boards (DHBs) around the country went on strike for the first time in their careers. Last week the three-month-long, 600 person-strong APEX union strike ended without resolution.

They had rejected a pay offer from the DHBs in mid-July. Clare Calvert, a psychologist at Hapai Ora, an early intervention service for young people experiencing psychosis, said the offer did not address APEX’s concerns. “They said we could have a [very small] pay increase over a shorter amount of time, but they didn’t address any of the other issues about retention or recruitment. They’ve suggested some working groups to work on that.” Workings groups, she said, aren’t what the union is looking for.

A DHB spokesperson said that, to their knowledge, the strikes are over. Psychologists disagree. “The plan is to not strike in November, and gather some thoughts and views about what members want to do in terms of what’s going to be effective,” said Calvert. “There’s going to be strikes up and running again in December.”

Lucy Falconer, a psychologist with the Auckland DHB, said her workplace has lost ten psychologists in the past 18 months, mostly to the Department of Corrections and the private sector. They haven’t been replaced. “That’s 25% fewer psychologists than we had 18 months ago,” she said. “We’re really concerned because we know that for children and adolescents the kind of therapies that we do are the first port of call, so they need to be available.”

In October, psychologists were limiting their face-to-face time with clients to two hours each day. “Some psychologists have only been doing 30 minute sessions and seeing four people, which isn’t ideal,” said Calvert. “You can’t do a great deal in that time in terms of therapy or assessment.” One client complained about not having quick enough access to psychology services, but Calvert said that’s always been a problem. “It will get worse because the population is increasing and we’re not really getting any extra resources.”

When approached for comment, DHB spokesperson Nigel Trainor directed The Spinoff to a statement he had released prior to the rejection of the October offer. In this statement, he said the DHBs have gone as far as they can to resolve the problem. He pointed to a settlement made by the PSA, another union that covers psychologists, as evidence that APEX is asking too much. “APEX psychologists have been offered pay increases at the same level as other psychologists covered by another union. APEX is essentially asking for a bigger settlement.”

Calvert and Falconer have both said the main concern is retention and recruitment to their field, which is understaffed for the current population. 

“Addressing the workforce issue discussed at bargaining is a key element of the DHB’s offer. The approach suggested to APEX is also something that requires agreement and collaboration to find a realistic way to address the needs identified by both parties,” said Trainor.

The PSA is a union covering 20% of psychologists working in DHBs. In September last year it agreed to a settlement, the details of which are undisclosed but are said to be similar to what APEX strikers have been offered. Trainor explained in his statement that DHBs “will treat all their people the same, especially those undertaking the same work, irrespective of union membership, and cannot bow to industrial pressure”.

Calvert believes the DHBs are declining to meet demands because they’re trying to streamline future bargaining. “From what I know, the PSA contract expires next year around October, and they’re going to be bargaining again then. It did feel like with the offer that we’ve just had, that they were going to stall us for a year [to negotiate with both unions at once].”

Both Calvert and Falconer agreed the DHBs’ ability to negotiate was impaired because the Ministry of Health was in the way. “It feels like the DHB managers do understand, and they’ve said yes, we do see that there are lots of vacancies and huge waiting lists, so that’s good,” said Calvert. “But they’re saying their hands are tied by the Ministry of Health. The Ministry said they don’t have the money.”

If industrial action starts again in December, it could continue for another three month stretch. “We have to vote first and determine what we want, but that vote’s not far away,” said Falconer. “I suspect the answer will be ‘yes’ to further action.”

Calvert agreed. “We’re going to be going into bargaining and mediation again, but it feels like it’s going to be a long road,” she said.

“I think unless something magical happens, there’s a high possibility of this action going into next year.”

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