St John runs hit job on its own ambos

Removable liquid chalk message on a St John Ambulance

I didn?t know whether to be surprised when I saw St John run a nasty little hit piece on One News on Monday night against its own ambulance officers. Okay?I wasn?t that surprised because I know them well. I am a career emergency ambulance officer.

Ambulance officers are currently on strike, to the extent that our consciences allow us to be. Strike action has taken several different forms so far, including not collecting billing details from patients, not working shifts in addition to our normal rostered shifts, not adhering to the uniform code and, most recently, the graffitiing of ambulances with non permanent markers. The graffitiing of ambulances seems to have caused a bit of a stir, and St John are a bit upset about it, because shock horror?their donors are not happy.

Well let me tell you who else is not happy. In a recent nationwide staff survey, 70% of paid ambulance staff said they were distrustful of management, felt ignored and unappreciated and felt that they had no future in St John. Let that sink in. What sort of organisation has a staff satisfaction level of 30%? St John has culture and bullying issues to rival the recent FENZ report and an investigation similar to the FENZ investigation needs to be conducted urgently.

Whether you agree or not with the temporary graffitiing of ambulances (I don?t and voted against it) this is the first visible sign of strike action that the public have seen, and St John have run straight to the media with a ‘leaked’ internal memo in an effort to discredit its workers. What happened to good faith bargaining?

Several years ago, some genius in the union made a deal with St John to trade away our penal rates in return for a higher annual salary. The problem with that was that in that year, all existing paid staff had their incomes ring fenced and any new paid staff employed after that were paid $10,000 pa less than their colleagues.

For the last half dozen or so years no emergency ambulance officer has been paid penal rates for working nights and weekends, and to add insult to injury, new staff get $10k less than their mates who are ring-fenced.

We work 12 hour shifts, often with overtime because we can?t just walk off a job and very often with only one half hour rest break. If we were truck drivers, that would be illegal. We are saving people’s lives with critical medications and procedures where mistakes can be fatal.

All new paid emergency ambulance staff are required to be fully degree qualified, which means a three year degree in paramedicine. Many staff have continued their studies and have postgraduate degrees, and their skills run to highly advanced procedures done by doctors in emergency departments?except we do it all in the field with little to no backup and minimal equipment compared to a hospital emergency department. No one else can do what we do in the circumstances in which we do it.

All new paid staff are recruited as emergency medical technicians (EMTs) on a salary of $54,482, despite having paramedicine degrees. That?s like doing a law degree and then being employed as a clerk, or a nurse being employed as a health care assistant, with the employer having total discretion over if and when you are able to advance. Paramedics start at $70,163, and intensive care paramedics (ICPs) start at $77,789. Each of these rates increases by a maximum of $5000 for length of service. And no penal rates.

St John say they have approached Health Minister David Clark for additional funding, but their hands are tied when it comes to paying staff more because no additional funding has been forthcoming from the government. What a load of old rot. St John are one of, if not the, biggest landowner in New Zealand. Their sources of income are many, varied and substantial and they repatriate hundreds of thousands of dollars every year via their secret squirrel international parent organisation. Are they even really a true charity? Maybe, maybe not. Let?s look at their activities:

  • Emergency ambulance service – funded by patients, ACC and DHBs
  • New ambulances – paid for by donors
  • Event ambulance coverage – billed (handsomely) to event organisers and staffed by volunteers (with the occasional paid officer, depending on the size of the event)
  • Medical alarms – billed to customer
  • First aid courses – billed to customer
  • Friends of the ED – staffed by volunteers
  • Caring Caller – staffed by volunteers
  • Community and youth programmes – staffed by volunteers but equipment provided by St John
  • ?Pet Outreach Therapy?, ie cute kittens in rest homes.

The cynical among us may suspect cute kittens in rest homes is a not very subtle manipulation by St John to influence old folks’ bequests. St John have a large bequest department whose sole role is to increase the number of bequests made to them.

So yes, there is definitely some charitable activity there, but the money coming in to St John far exceeds their actual charitable activities. So where does all the money go? Well it sure isn?t going to the emergency ambulance officers who St John always push forward in their marketing to enhance their image. They use us to enhance their image, but they won?t pay us fairly and they run dirty hit jobs on us in the media at the first sign of our strike becoming visible.

If St John?s donors don?t want vehicles to be temporarily graffitied, how would they prefer ambulance officers go on strike? Do we just walk off the job?

I believe the ambulance sector is at crisis point and decisive government action needs to be taken. In my very lengthy conversations with colleagues on the issue, not one of them believes St John should be running an emergency ambulance service.

Again, let that sink in: I have not spoken to a single emergency ambulance officer who thinks that St John should be operating an emergency ambulance service. The general consensus among staff is that St John should stick to first aid courses, medical alarms and covering sporting and other events. There is still plenty of scope there for them to make their profits to send overseas. Though I see how that would be problematic?St John would no longer be able to keep using their emergency staff to manage their very important public image.

Oh, and the curious among you might also like to investigate the sale-then-no-sale of St John?s National Headquarters building at 2 Harrison Rd in Mt Wellington.