Junior doctors in NSW sue for wage theft

·3-min read

A group of trainee medics is suing the NSW government for wage theft, saying exorbitant amounts of unpaid overtime are jeopardising the health of both junior doctors and patients.

Legal action spearheaded by the Australian Salaried Medical Officers Federation argues the NSW government has breached the doctor's employment award by failing to pay the extra hours and meal allowances.

Junior doctors have been robbed of tens of millions of dollars, the group says.

The government is already facing a class action from roughly 24,000 junior doctors, who are seeking to have their wages recouped.

But the wage theft action launched by the ASMOF hopes instead to change the award to create better pay and safer conditions for doctors.

The extra unpaid hours mean junior doctors are overworked and exhausted, and only contributes to the ongoing cycle of under-staffing.

It is risking the quality of patient care, they say, citing a recent survey which found 38 per cent of junior doctors had made an error due to fatigue.

A doctor might work until 10pm, be on call and field 50 phone calls overnight, then be expected to go back to work at 8am the next morning, junior doctor Yvonne Nguyen said.

"Do you really want that ... doctor looking after you?" she said, speaking outside the Supreme Court in Sydney on Wednesday.

But Alex Parr says the situation is endangering the lives of doctors too.

"Driving home after a week-long set of night shifts I almost crashed my car," the obstetrics and gynaecology registrar told AAP.

"I have a colleague who did crash a car after these long, long onerous hours."

Mental health struggles and suicide also disproportionately affect junior doctors.

Dr Parr, who spent three years working in the UK's public health system, says he's found working in NSW worse than the NHS.

"Australia is thought of as somewhere with better working hours. It's definitely not," he said.

"You're working 13 hour days with expectation that you will not claim and will not be paid (overtime) or it will be a detriment to your future career.

"We do feel a bit a bit trapped by the system."

The pandemic only exacerbated terrible conditions in hospitals across the state, ASMOF President Tony Sara said.

"Young doctors had to work harder ... (and) they were scared of taking COVID home to their families.

"They did more and more hours, with no extra staff and no relief."

Dr Sara said the union has been asking Health Minister Brad Hazzard for changes to the award for years, but was forced to take the "unprecedented" legal action when their pleas fell on deaf ears.

Some 40 doctors have submitted statements attesting to the unpaid overtime and more are on the way.

The group plans to argue the maximum possible penalty for each infraction, unless the state agrees to change the award.

"It is the same award as when I was an intern 38 years ago," he said.

"We're picking up the biggest piece of four by two that we can ... and we will sue the government and we'll keep on suing them until they agree to change it."

However, NSW Health said it had approached the union to initiate award reform in June.

It has also implemented two new rostering standards - 14-hour maximum consecutive rostered hours and 10-hour minimum break between shift periods - and worked to reduce barriers to junior doctors claiming unrostered overtime.

"If a medical officer is concerned about their working hours, including payment for hours worked, they are encouraged to discuss their concerns with their Hospital medical administration," a spokesperson said.

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