‘No one cared’: Junior doctors sue hospitals over unpaid hours

‘No one cared’: Junior doctors sue hospitals over unpaid hours

03/15/2021

Lawyers are preparing a string of class actions against Victorian hospitals over the “systemic and widespread” underpayment of junior doctors.

The early-career medics they represent say they are pressured to work huge amounts of overtime, then accused of being incompetent if they try to claim it.

Junior doctor Dr Karla Villafana-Soto was told by a past employer that any future claims of overtime would not be paid.Credit:Wayne Taylor

It has been estimated junior doctors routinely work around 16 hours of overtime a week, most of it unpaid. Exhausted and stressed, about 60 per cent of trainees then admitted to making a clinical error due to the excessive workload, according to one survey.

Most junior doctors choose not to record their unscheduled overtime, fearful it will negatively affect their career, but others who have tried to claim unpaid hours have had their timesheets altered after they submitted them, said Dr Roderick McRae.

Dr McRae, the president of the Australian Salaried Medical Officers’ Federation in Victoria, said that this practice of changing timesheets wasn’t unusual.

“Over the years it appears there’s just been this willful blindness,” he said.

“Junior medical staff are being advised by other staff… ‘do not apply for that overtime because it will not be paid’.

“And there is this general theme that there is no money, so don’t apply for it, because it will break the system.

The first claim, against Peninsula Health, the health service which oversees Frankston Hospital, was filed in the Federal Court of Australia on Friday on behalf of a junior doctor – the lead applicant – and the Victorian Branch of the Australian Salaried Medical Officers Federation.

Peninsula Health did not directly comment on the class action, but its chief medical officer Dr Shyaman Menon said the organisation “respects the rights of all staff, including the receipt of any payments to which they are entitled”.

It is expected that actions will be lodged against more of the major health services in the coming months, unless an early resolution can be reached.

Dr Karla Villafana-Soto is one of more than 10,000 junior doctors in Victoria who it will be claimed are entitled to be paid for the overtime they worked during the past six years.

She said in a previous job, she was working at least two hours more than her scheduled shift every day, and on the one occasion she tried to be paid for those extra hours, she was summoned to a meeting with the head of her unit where it was suggested she wasn’t as efficient as another doctor.

That doctor was working even longer hours than her, she said. The difference was he wasn’t recording it.

Dr Villafana-Soto said she was told that no further claims would be approved in future.

“There was no change made to staffing, or our rosters,” she said.

“It was so demoralising.

“I was going back to work in such an exhausted state every single day, knowing that no one cared.”

The Australian Medical Association supports the planned class actions and says the move is not about getting more money for doctors, but improving patient safety by reducing the number of hours the doctors work, by forcing hospitals to acknowledge and reduce the overtime.

“We know that when you push north of 50 hours a week, many people’s performance can suffer,” said AMA Victoria president Julian Rait.

The mental health of junior doctors and instances of suicide are of particular concern.

Professor Rait said overtime was high by historic standards due to the extra workload caused by COVID-19, but repeated attempts to get the Victorian government to recognise the issue had fallen on deaf ears.

“They’d rather not know about, or [they say] speak to the hospitals, it’s their business,” he said.

An enterprise agreement covering junior doctors has been amended multiple times in response to the issue and the matter was now with an independent umpire, according to the Victorian government.

“We support the right of all workers to receive the payments and benefits they are entitled to,” a government spokeswoman said.

The claimants in the class action are represented by law firms Gordon Legal and Hayden Stephens and Associates, which has launched a similar action on behalf of junior doctors in NSW.

Lawyer Hayden Stephens said he expected the claim would be “significant” based on the high incidence of unpaid overtime reported across thousands of junior doctors working in Victoria, “many of them working sometimes 20 to 30 per cent over ordinary weekly hours”.

Dr Villafana-Soto said while junior doctors were sometimes labelled incompetent for having to work overtime, there was also pressure to complete paperwork.

She recalls interns coming in on their days off to finish discharge summaries.

“When I asked them if they were going to claim, they said no, and there was just no way I could convince them to do it, because they knew that they would be punished,” she said.

“Victorian junior doctors are mostly employed on a 12-month contact, which means that even if we want to keep working at that same hospital we need to reapply for our jobs every single year, so you don’t want to upset your employer in any way.”

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