Frustrated paramedics deface ambulances

St John Ambulance paramedics are scrawling messages over ambulances as part of industrial action.

Negotiations for a collective agreement have been under way since September and have stalled on an offer of a 2.5 percent increase which is not back-dated.

The workers want a pay increase, to be paid penal rates for shift weekend and night work and to be paid based on their qualifications. Some ambulance staff earn $19 an hour.

"I don't know what they would determine a crisis. I would say it must be getting close. You've got ambulances that you can't use if you haven't got enough staff.”

Currently, their industrial action has focused on actions which carry the least effect on patient safety, such as not wearing uniforms, not attending events, and refusing to load more than one patient at a time for non-emergency transfers.

The graffiti is the latest activity to send the message to St John and the public.

Messages such as “working to keep wages low”, “first to pay minimum wage”, “do you know we work 24/7 with no penal rates” and “highly trained paramedic going cheap” have been seen on the vans interspersed with the ambulance signage and sponsor logos. The graffiti is in liquid chalk and can be removed.

St John director of people and capability Sue Steen said the organisation was disappointed in the union members' action.

"We have received formal complaints from our donors, supporters and St John members. The graffiti is also causing increased distress to patients and families already in a vulnerable state," said Steen.

Steen said the organisation respects the right of staff to take industrial action the graffiti had caused damage to some vehicles  A memo sent to St John staff said permanent markers had been used by staff and public: 

“…  we are also aware that members of the public are writing on the vehicles (using permanent markers) which is causing damage. We are asking that our people please respect those members of the public who have donated funds for these vehicle in the name of a loved one who has passed away and how this action is impacting on those families.”

Around 40 percent of frontline St John staff are members of First Union. One union member feels the memo puts emotional pressure on staff and is divisive. He said he’s yet to see evidence of permanent marker being used.

First Union organiser Sarah Stone believes ambulance staff are the only group in the health sector who don’t get shift work recognised. For those earning $19 per hour, accounting for penal rates would put their hourly rates at below minimum wage, she said. 

She’s is concerned for the future of the service as it’s become an unattractive career option for graduates. Many are leaving for overseas roles after they graduate.

The situation is so dire, in one shift only three intensive care paramedics were rostered on for all of Auckland, one for every 500,000 Aucklanders. Stone believes two extra were found at short notice, but thinks at least nine should be rostered on for each shift.

“A couple of Saturdays ago there were two ambulances off the road in Auckland because they didn’t have enough people to fill them.”

She’s predicting a “severe shortage” of staff.

“I would say it's getting to be a crisis situation. I don't know what they would determine a crisis. I would say it must be getting close. You've got ambulances that you can't use if you haven't got enough staff.”

"We’re getting frustrated. A lot of us want to walk out, but we’ve always got patient care at the back of our mind.”

Unlike the Police and the Fire and Emergency Service, the St John ambulance service is a charity. It  receives 74 percent of its funds from the government and fundraises for the remainder. Models for ambulance services differ around the world. In several countries they are fully taxpayer-funded. Stone said St John is not asking for enough government funding.

“What they do every single time bargaining comes up, is they say ‘We don’t have any money, we’ll apply for more money next time’. This time the CEO came to one of the bargaining meetings and someone said ‘Did you apply for more money, did you take it into account?’ He said ‘No, no I didn’t’.”

She said St John has offered a slightly higher rate than a 2.5 percent increase for the lowest paid roles, but this will still leave staff earning less than $20 per hour.

One paramedic spoke anonymously to Newsroom.

“We’re not supposed to be talking to media, but a lot of us have had enough. We’re getting frustrated. A lot of us want to walk out, but we’ve always got patient care at the back of our mind.”

He said the job involved long hours, shift work and could be dangerous. He has been assaulted twice and recently had a dog set on him during a callout.

“I now hold a world record in the hundred metre dash.”

He said staff were overworked with hardly any breaks. Often meal breaks are interrupted.

“Quite a few times, we actually will go over our driver hours. We do have an automatic stand-down, but we could have worked eight to nine hours in the day before we were actually stood down to have our first half an hour break.”

He said the level of responsibility in New Zealand was high compared to other countries.

“We probably get one of the best ambulance services in the world for autonomy because I can give so many drugs without having to ring a doctor or a nurse. We are pretty much a portable emergency department. Everybody at any level have drugs that can actually kill someone.”

He worried that overworked staff could make miscalculations.

“People get burnt out quickly.”

Keeping knowledge up-to-date takes time too. A new clinical procedures manual is almost 600 pages long. Paid time to learn the new clinical procedures is limited and much of it is done in personal time.

“At night time it drops down even more. There are only 16 to 20 ambulances. The population growth in Auckland has far exceeded our capability.”

Another concern is the low number of ambulances serving Auckland.

The graffiti encourages people to sign an online petition and ask ambulance staff questions about why they’ve defaced the vehicles. He often asks people how many ambulances they think serve the area. He said most people answer 200 or 300.

The actual number is very different. During the day there are only around 30 ambulances.

“At night time it drops down even more. There are only 16 to 20 ambulances. The population growth in Auckland has far exceeded our capability.”

He said staff were leaving Auckland for the South Island, and there were fewer eligible people applying for roles.

He thinks St John is attempting to provide a first-world service on a third-world budget.

“They keep saying they’ve got no money, but I’m not sure that’s true.”

First Union organiser Stone explained St John had area committees set up to do fundraising for their local district. 

“We know there are millions in these accounts. In an area like the North Shore, there might be $20 million.”

First Union has suggested as an interim measure funds from area committees be used to top up pay until St John can apply for additional government funding in October.

“In the past St John has always got what it applied for. It's just not applying for enough.”

She said the response from St John was that it couldn’t do that as it couldn’t guarantee funds every year. She’s expecting a formal response this week to the suggestion.

St John's Steen said the organisation "remains committed" to reaching a resolution to the negotiations.

"We have made an offer to our unions that we believe is fair given our current funding arrangements and ahead of a full workforce review.

"St John has met with the Minister of Health to express concerns over the current funding arrangements (74 percent) which are unsustainable. In partnership with Wellington Free Ambulance, St John has submitted a request for a significant increase in funding levels. This funding bid includes provision to ensure our people’s pay matches their skill level."

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