By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
LABOUR Director John Pinder has told Bahamas Nurses Union President Amancha Williams to stop her threats now that the government has committed to start paying nurses overdue funds this month.
A day after the BNU renewed its strike threats, Mr Pinder told The Tribune: "I told her to remember your first responsibility is patient care. You are saying you are threatening a nurses strike as a patient care provider. I have advised the president that if the government has addressed the issues and has given a timeline to deliver on them, then she ought not to continue with these threats.
"She sat in meetings, her and her permanent secretary and they agreed to certain things and the Department of Health has agreed to have a lot of the issues dealt with in this month's pay package."
On Sunday, the Ministry of Health said all outstanding payment matters related to the union have been addressed. The nurses had raised 14 issues that have been "amicably resolved," according to a ministry press release.
But the BNU, which held a strike vote on June 7, remains dissatisfied. Some of the matters the PHA insists are subject to further verification exercises--like overdue mileage allowance and hurricane related payments--remain unaddressed, the union said during a demonstration this week.
In response, Mr Pinder said: "There are one or two issues that need to be verified, like if you travel so and so miles and you put in for mileage allowance, the department must confirm the case, that what is being claimed is the right amount. You have disturbance allowance, which is to ensure that persons transferred to the Family Islands are not paying expenses out of pocket but could meet their obligations. Based on my conversations with the permanent secretary, progress is being made on these issues."
As for outstanding payments to nurses who have obtained post-graduate qualifications, Mr Pinder acknowledged the longstanding problem, one he said he had discussed years ago with then-Prime Minister Perry Christie.
"When in training nurses receive a stipend," he said. "Once finished, the paper work must be sent to the treasury so the Treasury could know of the new salary. Somewhere along the line, people were dragging their feet on that. It is a big problem. I don't know why that's been dragging on so long."
Nurses have also complained about a new shift the PHA is introducing that will require them to work a five-on/two-off shift, a change from the four-on/four-off shift they now work. The PHA says this will be done to reduce shortage issues in hospitals and clinics, but Mr Pinder said it also reflects the government's desire to cut back on overtime pay to nurses.
"If you have five nurses on and one calls in sick, the four will continue working, regardless of the one nurse not being there," he said. "You don't have to call in somebody who you would have to pay double time to which is what you would do now with the four-on/four-off system."
Mr Pinder said when he was Bahamas Public Service Union president years ago, he negotiated the transition of patient care technicians to the five-on/two-off shift, believing nurses would soon follow.
"When I was president, they told me there was too much overtime and too many call-in days," he said. "They told the union they were beginning to restructure the healthcare services to have better coverage and to bring down overtime. It was to start with auxiliary nurses but the nurses refused to come on board and held the hospital hostage. The auxiliary nurses accepted the change because we were led to believe the nurses would change to the shift within about four months."
Mr Pinder said the current shift system contravenes the Employment Act and could've been a headache for the government if nurses didn't enjoy having 40 hours off per week.
"The Act says after eight hours you must pay overtime but the nurses on the four-on/four-off shift were working ten hour days," he said. "They could've come and say you need to pay me time and a half for the next two hours. The government needs to fix it to prevent that from happening."
Although more than 300 nurses voted in favour of a strike last month, the government has not issued a strike certificate to the BNU because of the concern that not all nurses had the opportunity to vote.
Mr Pinder said the Labour Department has not yet received a formal response from the BNU to its position although a letter was sent to the union.
He said if the BNU makes another request for a strike vote, the department will accommodate the poll.