Junior doctors say they’re expected to work overtime for free. Now they’re suing hospitals

A string of class actions against health services in Victoria, NSW and the ACT is underway over claims junior doctors have been underpaid.

The legal action began in December 2020 when a class action was filed against NSW Health on behalf of junior doctors across the state to recover millions of dollars in allegedly unpaid wages.

The early-career medics, represented by lead plaintiff Amireh Fakhouri, claim they were deliberately not paid for the hours they worked overtime — a practice lawyer Hayden Stephens said was “now embedded in the business of running health”.

“For many, many years, it has been a systemic problem and acceptable practice that junior doctors work free labour for much of their working week,” said Mr Stephens, whose law firm Hayden Stephens & Associates, along with Maurice Blackburn, launched the legal action.

“Doctors themselves … have tried through advocacy to change the behaviour of health authorities. But those calls have really fallen on deaf ears.”

Since the NSW lawsuit was brought in 2020, nine more class actions have been filed across Australia on behalf of junior doctors who worked in the public health system between approximately 2015 and 2022.

In Victoria, eight separate class actions are underway against some of the state’s biggest health services, while junior doctors in the ACT launched a class action late last year.

Mr Stephens said junior doctors in South Australia were also investigating potential legal action.

Man wearing blue business shirt smiles.
Hayden Stephens is a lawyer representing junior doctors in NSW, Victoria and the ACT.

Unlike in NSW, where junior doctors are directly employed by the state’s health department, doctors in Victoria and the ACT are employed by individual health services, which is why multiple class actions were being pursued, said lawyer Andrew Grech of Gordon Legal.

“There’s already been a trial in the first of the Victorian class actions [against Peninsula Health] … and we’re expecting judgement in that trial sometime over the next several months,” said Mr Grech, who along with Mr Stephens, is representing junior doctors in Victoria and the ACT.

In Victoria, the Australian Salaried Medical Officers Federation doctors’ union is listed as an applicant on each class action, together with a named individual doctor.

Mr Grech estimates more than 36,000 junior doctors across NSW, Victoria and the ACT may be eligible to participate in the class actions, and — if they’re successful — potentially make a claim.

Unrostered overtime a ‘routine’ part of the job

Melbourne-based junior doctor Lucy Crook is participating in one of the class actions, and said working unrostered overtime was a routine part of the job for many young doctors.

Heavy workloads in public hospitals meant it was challenging for junior doctors to get their clinical and administrative work done within rostered hours, she said.

“There’s not one day in the last few years where I’ve finished work on time,” said Dr Crook, who is the Victorian chair of the Australian Medical Association’s (AMA) Council of Doctors in Training.

“It’s pretty exhausting … Some days, I’ll be like: Did I even go to the toilet today? There’s always more work to be done.”

In the latest national survey of Australia’s doctors in training, more than half of the 22,000 doctors surveyed described their workload as “heavy” or “very heavy”.

Two-thirds reported they worked more than 40 hours on average per week, including one in 10 who worked more than 60 hours on average per week.

In another survey of junior doctors in Victoria, 47 per cent reported never being paid for unrostered overtime.

For junior doctors, Dr Crook said taking legal action to recover unpaid wages was “not really about the money”.

“We accept that we are paid reasonably well for junior workers in the hospital system. It’s more about not being appreciated for the work that we’re doing,” she said.

A young woman wearing a striped black and white t-shirt smiles.
Dr Lucy Crook is a junior doctor in Melbourne and the Victorian chair of the AMA’s Council of Doctors in Training.

Heavy workloads frequently led to burnout and other health issues among healthcare staff, Dr Crook said, which ultimately had negative impacts on patient care.

That same survey of junior doctors in Victoria found nearly half of respondents had made a clinical error due to excessive workload or understaffing.

“A tired doctor, a stressed doctor, a depressed doctor is not going to be able to give the best care,” Dr Crook said.

“We’ve tried over many, many years to change the system so that we’re not working these hours and working them unpaid, but that hasn’t worked, so this is sort of the final step to try and force that change.”

Junior doctors discouraged from making claims

In some instances, Mr Grech said there was clear evidence of junior doctors being explicitly told by hospital administrators and senior colleagues not to claim their overtime.

Underpayment, he said, was also the product of a “culture” that regarded junior doctors as “inefficient, ineffective, and incompetent” if they did claim overtime.


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