Mental health care and support workers launch fight for pay equity
Mental health care and support workers – omitted from a historical pay deal for carers – will launch their own court battle for equal pay on Monday.
Two unions, the Public Services Association (PSA) and E Tu, will lodge an equal pay claim with the Employment Relations Authority, on behalf of mental health care and support workers.
In April, the Government announced a $2 billion package to address the pay inequity in the aged care sector, which has a mostly female workforce.
The announcement came after Kristine Bartlett fought for five years for equal pay, arguing the reason those working in her sector were so poorly paid was because so many of them were women.
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Mental health workers, many of them working alongside those set to get a pay rise from July 1, were left out of the deal.
PSA member Pollyanna Alo, who is one of the claimants taking the case to the Employment Relations Authority, said she was passionate about her work in the mental health sector, but it took its toll.
"We deal with people who are verbally abusive, sometimes our staff deal with physical assaults, our clients are so unwell. We deal with a lot . . . it affects my personal life, I still go home and carry over what's actually happened to me."
Alo wanted herself and her colleagues, many of whom were on the minimum wage, to be recognised for their commitment and dedication to others through a pay increase.
"It would recognise my value to the sector, and it's for my family, there's not point trying to look after others and give them quality care when I can't take care of my own family," she said.
She was really happy for those who'd been included in the government's pay equity deal for carers, but said she was also confused and bitterly disappointed mental health workers were left out.
"I'm still in disbelief over it, I can't believe we have to take action because they did not recognise we're all just one. We're all healthcare providers."
PSA national secretary Erin Polaczuk said the union originally thought mental health workers would be included in the government's agreement for pay equity, but they weren't, for reasons the union did not understand.
"It is patently a mistake, and also we don't think it makes any sense to have them excluded from the deal, the work they do is really similar to the care and support work.
"We believe they're underpaid, and that's why we're taking this case."
Those working with mental health patients were potentially working for the same employer, and even dealing with the same clients who needed help for disabilities, but would soon be paid less.
Alo said she had got a business diploma, and had considered leaving her current role for one that paid better.
"What keeps me here is that I know how many unwell people there are and I believe I can make a difference," she said.
Services were already stretched, and providers needed to be able to offer better pay for staff to keep them on, Alo said.
Polaczuk said given the conditions it was logical for mental health staff to move on to better-paid jobs.
"They're dealing with volatile and unwell people, and their families. You've got to be an emotionally intelligent and highly skilled person to deal with those who are highly distressed.
"It's not a job many of us would do . . . it's emotionally taxing, and most of them are paid under $17 an hour, most of them are on the minimum wage."
Bartlett said she was elated her case had the ball rolling for others to work towards pay equity, but in her experience the fight for equal pay was a long, daunting experience.
"It's not nice to go through, you're fighting, fighting, it's tiring, it's daunting. You've got to have faith, you've got to think 'yes, it's going to happen'."
She would follow the case closely, she said.
It was exciting groups of women were starting to stand up and fight, and Bartlett believed it would "domino down" into other industries.
"It will happen for them, justice has got to be served really, in these industries they work so hard these women, and the few men who do it too.
"I hope it goes well for them."
- Audio courtesy of Radio NZ