Sasha Borissenko: What do you do if you face a pay equity situation at work?

Nurses and health professionals resorted to industrial action on June 9, after 30,000 nurses voted to reject the latest offer in the latest round of multi-employer collective agreement negotiations.

Their goal was to increase pay rates in order to attract people to the sector, and address major issues around under-staffing.

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Underpinning these struggles are issues relating to pay equity, which is true to any female-dominated profession that’s been historically undervalued.

So what do you do if you face a pay equity situation at work?

To quote the Employment New Zealand website, “pay equity is about women and men receiving the same pay for doing jobs that are different, but of equal value (that is, jobs that require similar degrees of skills, responsibility, and effort)”.

Changes to New Zealand’s Equal Pay Act came into force in 2020 and aimed to create a more streamlined, accessible process to work through pay equity claims. It introduced a new process for individual employees and unions to raise claims directly with employers – it aligns with the bargaining process in the Employment Relations Act 2000, and aims to curtail and reduce the need to go through the Employment Court.

Last year, there were more than 86,000 people progressing 15 pay equity claims in education, health, and the public sector. During the last Labour Government, 23,600 employees received a pay equity settlement.

Under the Equal Pay Act, employees, employers, and unions are tasked with negotiating in good faith, with access to mediation and resolution services, if need be.

Essentially, you must tell your employer in writing: that the pay equity claim is made under the Equal Pay Act 1972; your name and address; the date of your claim; your occupation, position, and a brief description of the work; and information demonstrating that the work is undervalued.

For this, you need to consider the origins and history of the work; any social, cultural or historical factors; and the characterisation of the work as women’s work.

The employer must then decide within 45 working days whether they consider the claim is valid.

In the case where an employer agrees, they must notify all employees who may be affected within 20 working days. From then, the parties have to work through the pay equity bargaining process. According to Employment New Zealand, the process involves an assessment of the work of the claimant and suitable comparator occupations in order to establish whether the case is a pay equity one.

If a pay equity issue is found, the parties are tasked with bargaining to determine a settlement that may consist of compensation and other terms that doesn’t differentiate on the basis of sex.

Suppose an employer doesn’t agree there’s a claim, the parties undergo mediation, or facilitation, and in the instance a settlement can’t be reached, the Employment Relations Authority or a court will come into the picture. With any case involving the Employment Relations Authority or court, the process may be long and costly.

In the context of nurses, midwives, and health care assistants, pay equity arose as part of the 2017-2018 New Zealand Nurses Organisation-District Health Board multi-employer Collective Agreement negotiations. According to pay equity lead industrial services manager Glenda Alexander, while Covid-19 somewhat delayed the process, it’s expected to come to a conclusion by the end of the year.

Since 2019, the New Zealand Nurses Organisation has interviewed over 200 nurses in order to establish the various aspects of the roles and work in question. From there, investigations were made to establish whether there were any male-dominated equivalent roles. Once the evidence has been assessed, agreement needs to be made as to whether the assessments have been accurate and whether there’s a disparity in pay.

“It’s been close to two years of work and we can finally say nursing has been undervalued based on gender.”

This means finally nurses will eventually be compensated for the work that’s been historically undervalued.

In the meantime, if agreement isn’t made as a result of the strikes, which aims to address issues facing the profession here and now, it means it could be half a year where health workers are underpaid, undervalued, understaffed, and overworked.

This is particularly pertinent seeing as it’s these health workers who have been entrusted to deliver the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out.

Sasha Borissenko is a freelance journalist who has reported extensively on the law industry.

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