Last-minute court injunction stopped a mass walkout, but allied health workers continue to push country’s District Health Boards for improvements
In New Zealand, the unprecedented surge in PCR COVID-19 testing due to the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant appears to have pushed the country’s 10,000 healthcare workers—including 4,000 medical laboratory scientists and technicians—to the breaking point.
On March 3, just 24 hours before the first of two walkouts was scheduled to begin, New Zealand’s Employment Court banned the strike that would have shut down medical laboratories in the country’s mixed public-private healthcare system. Medical laboratory workers make up 40% of the nation’s 10,000 healthcare workers who planned the nationwide strike to protest low pay and poor working conditions, according to 1News.
“COVID was the perfect storm for the profile of laboratories and how undervalued they have been for far too long,” said medical laboratory scientist Terry Taylor, president of the New Zealand Institute of Medical Laboratory Science (NZIMLS).
Judge Issues Injunction Restraining the Strike
New Zealand’s Public Service Association (PSA) is the country’s largest trade union representing more than 80,000 workers across government, state-owned enterprises, local councils, health boards, and community groups.
The PSA’s 10,000 health workers (which includes 4,000 medical laboratory workers) had planned to strike on March 4-5 and March 18-19, but, according to the New Zealand Herald the Employment Court stopped the walkouts due to the rise in COVID-19-related hospitalizations.
The Herald noted, however, that PSA union members in Auckland had already postponed their walkout after county District Health Boards (DHB) expressed concern over patient safety.
“Striking has always been our last resort, and our members in Auckland continue to demonstrate their commitment to providing quality healthcare to New Zealanders by working tomorrow,” PSA Organizer Will Matthews told the Herald.
He insisted, however, that DHBs need to respond to workers’ concerns. “The depth of feeling from our members, and the support for industrial action nationwide is unprecedented,” Matthews told 1News. “We are now in a position where strike action is our only remaining option to get the DHBs and the government to listen.”
Clinical Laboratory Workers Claim Low Wages, Poor Conditions, Irrelevant Testing
While no new strike dates have been set, Matthews said striking workers would include contact tracers and laboratory staff as well as nearly 70 other groups of healthcare workers, many of whom “don’t even earn a living wage.” According to Peoples Dispatch, allied health workers are working under the terms of a contract that expired in 2020.
The starting salary for a DHB medical laboratory scientist after completing a four-year degree is NZ$56,773 (US$39,519), while lab assistants and technicians start out at less than NZ$50,000 (US$34,804), Stuff reported.
In an interview with 1News, Taylor maintained that diagnostic labs in New Zealand have long been understaffed, undervalued, and their workers poorly treated. The COVID-19 pandemic, he says, has exacerbated an ongoing problem. Issues such as space constraints, for example, have become even more problematic.
“We’ve got extra machinery that’s come into the labs, we don’t get any more space, all these consumables sitting all over hallways and corridors, extra staff coming in to do the stuff,” Taylor told RNZ. “So, we’ve lost all our tearooms, we’ve lost all our office space, our conditions are markedly less than they should be.”
1News points out that the country’s medical laboratory scientists and technicians are processing more than 20,000 PCR COVID-19 tests per day in addition to running 120,000 other samples and 200,000 diagnostic tests. At the end of March 2020, the average number of COVID-19 tests processed per day was 1,777.
While New Zealand has preached to its citizens the need for widespread PCR testing, Taylor argued in February 2022 that the country must change its approach to offering PCR testing only to symptomatic individuals and close contacts.
“To run our diagnostic laboratories into the ground with endless irrelevant testing is a direct reflection of poor foresight, planning, and respect for the role of this critical health workforce,” Taylor told Newshub.
Necessity of Rewarding All Medical Laboratory Personnel
Medical laboratory scientist Bryan Raill is president of Apex, a specialist union of allied, scientific and technical employees. Raill told 1News the long-term solution is for the government to address pay equity, staffing levels, and worker wellbeing in the country’s historically undervalued medical laboratories.
“Medical laboratory scientists and technicians have to be fairly rewarded for the training, skill, and expertise they bring to the health system,” Raill said. “Medical laboratory scientists need a timely, fair, and equitable process to determine their worth.”
While the stresses on New Zealand medical laboratory workers are not identical, US clinical laboratory leaders will want to monitor the lengths to which New Zealand’s laboratory workers are willing to go to force improvements in their working conditions, staffing, and pay.
As the noted above, the government-funded health system is continually strapped for funds. Consequently, the health districts often defer capital investment in hospitals and medical laboratories. That is one reason why lab staff can find themselves working in space that is inadequate for the volume of specimens which need to be tested daily.
—Andrea Downing Peck