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AMA Victoria: fighting for your rights

Providing assistance, advice and representation to members on employment-related matters is the bread and butter of the AMA Victoria Workplace and Advocacy Unit, writes Senior Industrial Relations Adviser Rod Felmingham.

2012 was a difficult year for Victoria’s public hospital system, and therefore a difficult one for doctors employed within it. The following gives a flavour of the sorts of things that affected doctors employed in public hospitals last year, and which have given AMA Victoria the opportunity to be of service to members.

All of our dealings with individual members are naturally in the strictest confidence. Each of the current issues described is abstracted from a number of individual cases.

Underpayments

Most doctors do not carefully scrutinise their payslips each fortnight to confirm that their employer has got the numbers right. When they do, it is not uncommon to find that the pay is incorrect. Underpayments can arise from misinterpretation of agreements and contracts, failure to take internal or external changes into account, or from simple mistakes. AMA has been successful in the past 12 months in helping a significant number of members recover underpayments, in one case of more than $100,000.

Overpayments

More often than should be the case, hospitals will make a pay error in favour of the doctor, subsequently discover the mistake, and seek to recover the money. If an employee is paid more than he or she is legally entitled to receive, the employer is entitled to recover the overpayment. However, they are not entitled to recover it without the agreement of the doctor, and experience shows that it is always very unwise to agree to repay anything without a detailed, itemised, understandable explanation that satisfies you that you have in fact been overpaid by the amount claimed. Bear in mind that the people telling you how much you owe them are the same people who claim they made the mistake in the first place. AMA has assisted numerous members with alleged overpayments in the past year, and it often turns out there was no overpayment at all. In two cases of alleged overpayment, careful review showed there was actually an underpayment.

Contract review and assistance with individual contracts

We continue to advise many doctors on the content of employment contracts offered them by hospitals and private employers. In most cases, once offered and accepted, a contract is never looked at again. The importance of contract wording comes into play when there is a problem. If the wording is not helpful, the problem is more difficult to resolve.

Public hospitals differ in the ways in which they document employment arrangements, but all use generic, template contracts developed for that purpose. It is pleasing to note that many health services have incrementally taken on board AMA comments on the content of generic contracts, to the extent that contract documentation in the public hospital system is better now than it has ever been. The standard, however, is not uniform.

Changes in hours

2012 was a very difficult year. AMA was involved in trying to mitigate the effects of budget cuts in a large number of individual situations. In many cases, all that could realistically be achieved from an industrial perspective was adequate consultation with affected doctors, the observance of required notice provisions, and where there were redundancies, compliance with the rules. In individual employment situations, AMA has been able to ensure that reductions in hours are implemented fairly and equitably.

Occupational health and safety problems

One result of the constant pressure on public hospitals to provide adequate services with inadequate resources has been the increasing emergence of occupational health and safety issues affecting medical staff, mostly associated with inadequate staffing numbers.

A particularly insidious hazard arises from the conflict and stress generated by competition between units or individuals for scarce resources. The pressure on middle managers to achieve frequently unrealistic KPIs and budget targets is leading to increasing incidents of bullying and harassment masquerading as “management”.

Leave entitlements

Difficulties with obtaining recognition of prior service for long service leave entitlements continue to arise. Most doctors work in a number of public hospitals over the course of a career and some hospitals, we have learned, do not keep complete records. We can usually assist with alternative means of establishing entitlement, and so far as we are aware, in the course of 2012 no AMA member with a genuine entitlement missed out.

We were also successful in assisting a number of members to overcome obstacles to pursuing sabbatical leave projects.

Superannuation entitlements

Superannuation is governed by legislation, and is generally straightforward. Where it has been problematic at times is for doctors over the age of 70. We have obtained agreement from hospitals in a number of individual cases to continue superannuation contributions beyond the time they are legally required, or in some cases where the legislation does not allow before-tax contribution (for doctors over 75 years), to pay a 9% premium on their salary.

Disciplinary matters

The number of performance and disciplinary issues with which we assisted members in 2012, including some which led termination of employment, was consistent with past experience. Thankfully, these situations do not arise frequently, but if and when they do, AMA members should be aware that we have experience and expertise in these matters, and we give high priority to any situation that is potentially job- or career-threatening.

The year ahead

2013 will not be the best year the Victorian public hospital system has seen. While we continue to lobby both federal and state governments to provide funding to meet the health care needs of the community, we expect plenty of opportunities to continue assisting members with the industrial relations facts of life in public hospital employment.

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