The number of employees at the country's largest hospital earning more than $500,000 has jumped, after surgeons worked extra hours to help clear backlogs caused by Covid-19.
Three surgeons earn more than $1 million a year, Auckland DHB's latest annual report reveals. The number of employees paid more than $500,000 a year has nearly doubled in five years.
Fifteen staff members are earning more than the DHB's chief executive, Ailsa Claire, who was paid $677,000 in the 2019-20 financial year.
"To attract and retain the right people for the complex roles that we have to fill, we pay market rates to our employees. The need to provide competitive remuneration is always balanced with ensuring the careful spend of public health funds," a DHB spokesperson told the Herald.
In the financial year ending in June last year, 49 people earned more than $500,000, and three were paid over $1m.
That compares to 39 people earning over $500,000 the previous year. There were 26 people earning that much in 2015/16.
The latest earnings breakdown is accompanied with an explanation, that the highest earners are all surgeons who "operate, then remain on call, to be called back to care for their patients as, or if, required".
"As a consequence of high volumes of complex and acute operations and higher numbers of elective operations and procedures, there were a number of surgeons on call who were called back frequently," the document states. "In addition, the requirement to meet elective throughput targets has required additional Saturday operating lists, for which a premium was paid."
Auckland City Hospital has a range of specialised regional and national services. Many staff are "global experts in their fields", the DHB spokesperson told the Herald.
"Some surgeons' salaries may have been higher in the 2019/20 financial year in comparison to previous years due the effects of the Covid-19 lockdown periods. To catch up on backlogs in outpatient and surgical wait lists, some of our surgeons were paid more to work additional hours throughout the months following."
In New Zealand, many specialists work in public and private health systems. The Auckland DHB figures reflect only what they earn from the public system.
Sarah Dalton, executive director of the doctors and dentists' union, the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, said the remuneration partly reflected ongoing specialist shortages of around 24 per cent across the whole workforce. That meant overtime.
"They [DHBs] will be having to pay people extra if they agree to do more work on top of their existing loads.
"Auckland DHB has very sub-specialised services, and that may attract higher rates, because of international scarcity and demand. And it's also in recognition that for some of those people they may have trained for upwards of 20 years."
New Zealand hospitals were contending with the fact remuneration in Australia is "massively higher", Dalton said. Greater government and sector leadership was needed to address workforce pressures, she said.
Many hospital staff were fatigued and burned out, Dalton said, and the Government's recent announcement of pay restrictions for those in the public sector had caused widespread dismay.
"It's going to snap soon. You can't run an operating theatre - even if the surgeon is willing - unless you've got your anaesthetist, your anaesthetic technician, your nurses, other support staff. And goodwill around some of that extra stuff is evaporating at the moment."
The New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) union yesterday confirmed 30,000 district health board nurses voted to strike on June 9. David Wait, NZNO industrial adviser, said nurses were furious at the Government's wage restraint announcement that would effectively freeze their wages for three years, as most have already progressed to the last step of their pay scale.
The restrictions will prevent pay rises for public servants who earn more than $100,000 a year, until 2024, and limit those available to people who earn more than $60,000 a year.
This week Finance Minister Grant Robertson maintained the public sector pay restrictions do not amount to a pay freeze, or austerity, and there is scope for pay progression and bargaining.
"I understand this has caused distress and upset," Robertson said. "I obviously regret that deeply, but we are not talking about a pay freeze here, we are talking about a process or guidelines for negotiation."
What Auckland DHB pays staff
2015/16: 26 over $500k, 1 over $1m
2016/17: 26 over $500k, 2 over $1m
2017/18: 33 over $500k, 4 over $1m
2018/19: 39 over $500k, 4 over $1m
2019/20: 49 over $500k, 3 over $1m
Source: ADHB annual reports