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Bay of Plenty Pathlab workers going on strike for better pay

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The Pathlab clinic in Greerton. Photo / Alex Cairns

Bay of Plenty workers at an “essential” healthcare service serving hundreds of patients a day are striking for 24 hours for better pay amid rising inflation and living costs.

More than 95 per cent of staff at Pathlab facilities in the greater Tauranga area will strike from 6am on Tuesday until 6am on Wednesday, their union says. One clinic will remain open for urgent testing.

Pathlab provides blood testing and other pathology services to about 1000 patients daily in the Western Bay of Plenty area.

FIRST Union organiser Amanda Rochester said negotiations had been ongoing and it was required to deliver a strike notice for the “full withdrawal” of labour “well in advance” due to Pathlab being an “essential healthcare service”.

Pathlab provides blood testing and other pathology services to about 1000 patients daily in the Western Bay of Plenty area. Photo / NZME
Pathlab provides blood testing and other pathology services to about 1000 patients daily in the Western Bay of Plenty area. Photo / NZME

Rochester said Pathlab workers were coming off the back of a three-year deal and had seen their wages “stagnate” – a claim denied by the company – while inflation and the cost of living had risen.

Pathlab said it had always ensured its employees’ wages were “fair and equitable” within the industry scope and it had offered a six per cent increase backdated to November.

Employees working for less than living wage

Rochester told the Bay of Plenty Times the entry-level wage of a phlebotomotologist was $23.56 per hour, below the living wage of $26 per hour.

In her view: “They’ve consistently been asked to do more with less and have a number of long-standing vacancies that they’re struggling to fill due to low wages and a growing workload.

Rental housing in the Bay of Plenty is among NZ's most expensive. Photo / George Novak
Rental housing in the Bay of Plenty is among NZ’s most expensive. Photo / George Novak

“Staff want fair wage rises, including a minimum living wage, but they believe that without strike action, management will not sufficiently increase wages during bargaining and that will mean a significant net loss for workers, who are already struggling to survive in one of the most expensive regions to live in in Aotearoa.”

Rental prices in the Bay of Plenty eclipsed Auckland’s for a period earlier this year, according to Trade Me data, and analysis has found it takes longer to save a home deposit in Tauranga on average than any other New Zealand main centre.

Pathlab temporarily closed two Bay of Plenty clinics in 2022 and one in 2021 due to staff shortages. All have since reopened.

Workers in public hospitals had ‘significant’ pay increase

Rochester said pay parity was also a “major issue” with public hospital workers who delivered similar services receiving a “significant” pay increase of up to 25 per cent in recent years.

“This has created a big disparity between them and workers at private companies like Pathlab.

Pathlab clinic in Greerton was closed for a year due to staff shortages. Photo / Alex Cairns
Pathlab clinic in Greerton was closed for a year due to staff shortages. Photo / Alex Cairns

“Without parity between the public and private health systems, recruitment and retention of new staff is even more difficult.”

Rochester said Pathlab staff wanted “fairer workplaces” that could attract new staff and help to deliver services in the Bay of Plenty.

‘Considerable difference’ in pay is ‘unsettling’ – Pathlab

In a statement, Pathlab chief executive Dianne McQueen said a pay parity agreement between Te Whatu Ora and the unions representing hospital laboratory workers was reached late last year.

The wage increase ranged from 20 to 35 per cent and was slowly being rolled out to laboratory staff employed by Te Whatu Ora.

The result was a “rather large disparity” for the private laboratory workers in New Zealand, she said.

“Our current laboratory service contracts with Te Whatu Ora do not have the capability to service such increases. This increase is unprecedented and was not envisaged when the contracts were written.”

She said Te Whatu Ora had acknowledged all laboratory sectors funded by the agency – including private laboratories – should receive pay parity.

“Pathlab is working closely with Te Whatu Ora to ensure we have a pathway to access funding for this.

“We acknowledge that this is very unsettling for our employees and is a risk to Pathlab, as available positions within the hospital Te Whatu Ora funded laboratories are receiving a considerable difference in wages.”

Pathlab wages ‘have not stagnated’

McQueen said its Bay of Plenty staff signed a three-year agreement until November 2023 with a 6.2 per cent increase over this time.

“Additionally, we paid a pro-rata (on full-time equivalent basis) $2000 in recognition of the work we all performed during Covid.”

As inflation rose, Pathlab brought forward the final year’s increase by six months to help sustain rising living costs, McQueen said.

Wages “have not stagnated” and Pathlab was in negotiation, with an offer on the table of nine per cent backdated to November 2023.

She said Pathlab had always ensured its employees’ wages were “fair and equitable” within the industry scope.

McQueen said it respected the employees’ decision to strike and was working through its contingency plans to ensure acute and urgent testing was performed.

‘Urgent’ testing still available at Cameron Rd facility

All affected medical centres were advised on Monday regarding the closures of Pathlab facilities and the impact on services.

Collection for urgent testing would still be available at the Cameron Rd facility and the courier service would not be affected.

McQueen said notices had been displayed in all rooms with information about the closure and relevant social media would be updated.

“We are, of course, committed to ensuring any acute, urgent testing will be attended to.”

Te Whatu Ora says workforce pressures ‘top priority’

A Health NZ spokesperson said it met with private providers of laboratory services and workers’ representatives to progress pay equity issues but there were “no significant developments” and discussions were “ongoing.”

The spokesperson said addressing workforce pressures in the health sector was a “top priority” and significant work was underway.

“This goes beyond pay equity and pay parity, and includes training, recruitment and retention, and funding models.”

The Health Workforce Plan 2023 outlined actions to strengthen its allied, scientific, and technical workforce.

Health NZ was working closely with stakeholders, including private sector health service providers, on how these actions could be implemented.

Megan Wilson is a health and general news reporter for the Bay of Plenty Times and Rotorua Daily Post. She has been a journalist since 2021.



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