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The BulletinMay 6, 2021

Furious feedback: Bulletin readers respond to public sector wage freeze

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

This morning’s edition of The Bulletin called for feedback on the pay freeze coming for huge chunks of the public service. The reaction has been one of almost unanimous rage. 

Public servants don’t often get the chance to share their unfiltered views with the media. So the response this morning to a call for feedback has been significant and unusual.

It has also been almost unanimous: A reaction of anger, disappointment and betrayal, particularly after the sacrifices and hard work of 2020. Many respondents made the point that they worked harder than they ever have during the Covid crisis – and did far more work than they were being paid for – and are now getting rewarded with an effective pay cut.

For context, the government’s announcement was that those earning between $60k and $100k a year would only be offered raises in “exceptional circumstances”, and those on $100k or more would be on a pay freeze, both for the next three years. Any pay rises would be targeted at those below $60k a year. But it comes at a time when the cost of living is rising for many, particularly in terms of food and rental costs.

To protect the jobs of those sending in feedback, The Spinoff has chosen to obscure their identities. Some responses have been edited for brevity, and many of the points selected here were echoed by others.

Anonymous medical professional considering going private, or to Australia

“I work as a doctor at one of the larger hospitals. Throughout my career we have had regular turnover of managers who have gradually cut back on the limited benefits we are entitled to, knowing it would be difficult to kick up a stink for small changes. Further to this new managers strategies to problems is for us to just work harder. This wage freeze really is a frank reminder from the government that we’re just seen a number and we are not valued outside of the pound of flesh we provide throughout our career. Additionally this does nothing good for the already poor morale at overworked centers.”

Anonymous at government agency in Wellington

“Getting up and going to work this morning was tough. We don’t need more proof that Cabinet hates public servants. That’s been clear for a while now. Life in the public sector means constantly being asked to do more for less. A sense of fulfilment from serving the public is somehow meant to help pay our rent and bills.

“The best we can hope for, through our work, is that we prevent things from getting worse for people in New Zealand. Forget transformational change. It’s all we can do to combat the slide towards degradation in public services.”

Former public servant who didn’t get a pay rise in four years

“I recently resigned from the public service due to increased work loads that required me to constantly work evenings with no recognition from management – and I don’t mean extra pay though that would have been nice. With freezes on internal budgets and not filling vacancies after people left resulted in fewer people to do more of the work was common across the ministry for primary industries. A lot of people had enough of being under valued and taken for granted.”

Hawke’s Bay-based public servant whose partner is a teacher

“What the government seems to forget is that in many of New Zealand’s regions, public service workers underpin the local economy. In the regions, public service roles are where the higher wages are (and by higher I just mean over $40k). Our council recognised that and made a decision at the start of lockdown not to cut any permanent staff in their Covid adjustments as they knew their many staff still earning and spending locally would help our local economy recover. Also, given the current cost of living, especially house prices, a family could barely survive on one income of $60k, even in the regions.”

Regional mental health nurse in understaffed team

“I work as a registered nurse on a crisis team providing emergency psychiatric assessment in [redacted North Island region] – a very deprived area where unemployment, crime rate and drug and alcohol problems and the incidence of mental illness and addiction is very high. Myself and my team mates work very hard, we work long hours, we always work overtime every week in order to continue to provide a service to the public. We are a small team with four vacancies. It is very difficult to recruit to mental health because of the dearth of experienced mental health nurses in this country.

“I am outraged that the government sees fit to freeze our wages for the next three years, meaning that the cost of living will continue to rise and we will have less money to meet these costs. This removes any incentive for nurses to continue on a clinical career pathway, where the time and effort to complete post graduate qualifications will not be adequately rewarded.”

Anonymous public service contractor in Wellington

“While I don’t work in the Covid area, I have seen armies of contractors bought in to respond to the global pandemic. These people are generally on very high hourly rates. This is where the problem will be – staffers’ resentment of the inevitable inequalities that this freeze will perpetuate in an already low morale environment.”

Wellington public servant who thinks white collar workers will leave

“I work in the public sector – in a large public service department in Wellington. I earn over $100,000. This move from the government seems crazy to me – it’s easy for me as a “white collar” public servant to get a pay rise. I just move to another role or a different agency and negotiate a higher salary. That is much much harder to do (impossible?) if you are a teacher in a rural school or a nurse or any frontline worker.”

Anonymous Auckland public servant who is packing it in

“A broad stroke answer to the questions in your bulletin is that I will be moving into the private sector at the end of the month, as a result of not feeling valued through salary recognition, nor at a qualitative or humanistic scale by our fellow colleagues. I know this is because we are all under the pump and it has been like this from day 1.”

Bureaucrat who went above and beyond for Covid

“I’m the stereotypical public servant people love to hate. I work in policy, in a big glass building in the CBD, and have too many pointless meetings.

“I also gave up my nights and weekends during level 4 working on how to keep food chains flowing and enabling essential businesses to operate safely and efficiently, in addition to still progressing my business as usual work. I also worked on border exemptions getting essential workers here and helping reunify families. During the Auckland resurgence I again gave up my time in order to help get essential businesses across the Auckland border while keeping the rest of NZ safe. I was on call all through the Christmas and summer holidays in case there was a resurgence.

“I don’t do this job for the money, if I did I would be in the private sector or contracting. I do it because I enjoy the work, and most of all I want to help make New Zealand a better place. Most of my colleagues feel the same way. However, recognition and acknowledgement is important.”

Regional worker who sees a disconnect with Wellington

“I work for a government agency in a regional branch and while I love my job and my coworkers and local management, this is yet another example of the disconnect between Wellington and public servants on the ground, especially in the regions. I’ve seen countless incredible people with priceless community connections and a lifetime of experience working in their area dropped onto fixed term contracts at barely over living wage after years in public service.”

Not about the money, but about the principle

“The remuneration reward for working hard and being good at your job is pretty token. It’s definitely not the reason you turn up and try your best every day. But it is still a bit insulting to have it taken away, especially when doing so probably isn’t going to actually save the country money anyway.”

Government agency manager who thinks front office workers will be hit hard

“A pay freeze like this does nothing to impact the fat middle management layer in the government who have generally been in jobs for decades, aren’t particularly productive and already draw unnecessarily high salaries (and I suspect are the significant public sector wage burden). This layer doesn’t get pay rises, they get restructured, resized and paid more as a result. I can’t see this stopping that perpetual process.

“Anyone working in the public sector in anything like a front office role is grossly underpaid compared to back office. They’re nearly always on below 100k, generally above 60k. People in these jobs do not get restructured, resized and paid more as a result. They have very tough jobs and tough expectations put on them. Often they are struggling already because of escalating living costs. They are as deserving as anyone of pay rises and this will certainly be demotivating to that group. For many of them though they’ll put up with it because they don’t have much choice and often will keep doing the job because they care.”

Middle manager who says burnout is rising

“We were one of the “essential services” kept working during Alert Levels 2-4, so our value was already recognised by central government. Our leadership has been a bit light on the praise for our continued “valiant service”, though, and across the organisation, significant strain is evident. Since the full return to work last year, staff at all levels are reporting work-related stress and burnout, and visits to the in-house psych are rocketing. Staff being asked to continue to “do more with less” (fewer resources, greater regulatory compliance requirements, less training) stings even more when there is no salary increase on the horizon.”

And a point in mitigation:

“My view is that I’m prepared to accept the freeze as a necessary way of trying to claw back the massive post-Covid debts. I am in the $60+ pay bracket though I work only part time so will be vulnerable if inflation takes off. However, I think it’s worth noting that public servants have the benefit of reasonable job security. Compare that to the many in the private sector who lost their jobs last year and were supported by the government’s support package. And others, like my son, who only kept their jobs because of the wage subsidy. Public servants work hard, some in thankless jobs, but they do have jobs.”

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