INsite editor JUDE BARBACK reflects on what yesterday’s pay equity settlement announcement means for the sectors involved.

Long-time INsite readers will know that I’ve been diligently and doggedly following the equal pay case for years now. It has fascinated me on a number of levels:

As a granddaughter, I have witnessed the importance of good care in a rest home setting and the need to reward those caregivers adequately.

As a woman – even a fairly understated feminist like me feels emotive about “women’s work” being appropriately valued.

As a pragmatist, I understand the anxieties of small rest home operators, who are barely coping in an underfunded environment as it is. What will these pay increases mean in cold hard business terms? Will the promise of Government funding really match the reality of paying more wages?

And as a proud Kiwi, it has been an honour to follow such a momentous drive for change, to witness the clash and collaboration between Government, unions and business in an effort to set things right for some of our lowest paid workers who play such an important role in society.

So at last, here we are – a decision, a conclusion of sorts. I felt something akin to relief when I first heard the news and finally received Dr Coleman’s email (personalised and from his account – nice touch) yesterday afternoon.

What does it all mean?

I think the most important point to make is that the pay increase is so incredibly well-deserved. It is so obvious that it almost goes without saying. It intrigued me how the unions and providers were essentially on the same page about this from the early stages, despite being on opposite sides of the courtroom – it was really a matter of how to make it all work.

Which brings me to my next reflection – how will the Government fund this? I mean, really fund this. I struggle to get my head around two billion dollars. I’m more interested in the nitty gritty, the ARRC negotiations, how regional equity is going to be achieved.

I squirmed a little at the Minister’s reference to raising the costs for people in rest homes. But if you think about it, it plays nicely into the Government’s emphasis on ageing in place. As INsite readers know, I have become preoccupied with the squeeze on rest-home level care. Pretty soon, rest homes will be only for people with very high needs, offering hospital-level, dementia-level and palliative care. And yesterday’s settlement decision, with its expectation for workers to become more qualified and experienced – and as a result, better paid – plays into this.

It is the knock-on effect that concerns me. If a caregiver is paid $27 an hour, what happens to the pay rates of our aged care Registered Nurses, who might be sitting around that level too? Providers will inevitably want to increase their RN’s pay rates, but where will that extra funding come from? Are we potentially looking at phasing out aged care nurses? It sounds a radical leap to make, but if we are upskilling our caregivers and bringing their pay closer in line with nurses, it is not an entirely unfeasible theory.

I have a hunch that facilities will not want to lose their RNs (and under current Ministry of Health regulations, they can’t anyway) and instead take a closer look at their staffing levels. While this settlement is ultimately a time of celebration for most caregivers, for others it could potentially spell a period of upheaval.

The funding doesn’t just stop there either – indeed it has many limits. The ramifications of this settlement are far-reaching. Other sector groups will no doubt be looking hungrily at this deal. Case in point – primary teachers’ union NZEI Te Riu Roa has been arguing for fair pay for support teaching staff for a long time. The Government is under no illusions about this and Prime Minister Bill English has already made reference to the “me too” effect. Yes, we now have a better idea of how to handle future pay equity claims, but how will we, as a nation, afford it?

So, as it turns out, this isn’t really the end. It is the beginning of a new era for the residential aged care, home support and disability sectors. The bottom line, if there is one, is that I am thrilled for these sectors and the people who work in them. Change needed to happen, and it is finally happening. But there is a lot involved with making it all work. Buckle up tight. Get ready for the next stage of the journey. There might be some twists and turns yet to come.

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