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The cost of a break

(or: how the nursing team is propping up DHB budgets)

One hundred millionAs I’m sure each one of you knows, we are coming up to a General Election, and while there are many issues to consider as we head for the polling booth (both policy-wise and ‘other’), for most NZNO members, the health system will be on our minds.

DHBs are underfunded and being forced to cut every budget line to the bone. We know this affects the nursing team – in your day to work and in other ways too.

What we don’t often think about is how the way we work financially benefits our employers. Here’s what I mean:

Carol works in a unit that is chronically understaffed, where there’s no cover for sick leave and annual leave and, because the DHB is “making savings”, overtime must be signed off by the CEO in advance.

What that means for the nursing team is that Carol and her colleagues work at least half to an hour of overtime every day without claiming. If they get a morning tea break, they’re lucky, if they get an afternoon tea break it’s like Christmas has come early, and as for lunch breaks, well that’s another story.

Carol knows the DHB MECA clause 7.1 says you are able to have meal break of a minimum of half an hour within the first five hours of work (except in urgent and emergency work). The MECA clause 7.3 says if you are not able to take a meal break after 5 hours you are to be paid at time and a half until you get that meal break.

The reality is that lunch breaks are almost seen as luxury, even though every nurse knows the quality of our practice is improved with getting good breaks.

So, let’s add it up. At a very conservative estimate let’s say that Carol “gifts” her employer one 30 minute lunch break every week.

For an RN or midwife on step 3 of the pay scale that’s $2044 every year. Enough for a decent holiday!

But let’s take those numbers a bit further. With around 50,000 members of the nursing team working in DHBs around the country, and using that very conservative estimate of $2044 per year – that’s over $100 million we’re not claiming!

And that means we are propping up DHBs finances to the tune of $100 million plus every year!

There are a couple of issues here.

Firstly, you are entitled to take breaks, breaks help ensure the quality of your work and you should never feel obliged to just keep on trucking. If you keep on keeping on, you can be sure that your employer will be happy to keep on not paying out staff entitlements. NZNO says to each and every one of you:
“Please claim your entitlements! We have worked hard over the years to negotiate fair collective employment agreements that include breaks and entitlements. If you do not claim you are undermining your collective agreement, and that’s the start of a slippery slope!”

And secondly, why is the government underfunding the DHBs to the extent that DHBs must now rely on the goodwill of the nursing team to try and balance their books?

Both those issues are worth taking into consideration as we head to the polling booth in the next couple of weeks. And they are both issues that you can take collective action about, at work and in your community.