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Will extra staff help Centrelink cope with virus demand?

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UPDATED: Unions and welfare organisations have raised concerns about Centrelink’s long-term ability to service the hundreds of thousands of new jobless clients added to its books in the wake of coronavirus, despite thousands of extra staff being drafted in to help cope with the unprecedented demand.

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About 5000 new Centrelink jobs were announced last month by Prime Minister Scott Morrison as part of the government’s stimulus package in the wake of coronavirus.

Morrison said the extra Services Australia workers would be employed to help deliver the package, which included extra and higher social security payments after hundreds of thousands of workers lost their jobs when social distancing orders forced businesses to close across the nation.

The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) has since said an additional 1500 public servants from other departments have also been seconded to assist Services Australia.

But the South Australian Council of Social Services (SACOSS) is concerned the influx of new Services Australia workers do little to solve many of the central issues relating to Centrelink, including access to accurate and timely information.

The union has previously estimated more than 55 millions calls a year to Centrelink go unanswered.

SACOSS CEO Ross Womersley said that in order for the welfare system to support people facing potential long-term unemployment, Centrelink should be reframed “as a support system and not a system where people are harassed and harangued as though they are likely to exploit the system all of the time”.

“Even if the economy reboots quickly, many of the jobs are not going to reboot quickly,” he told InDaily.

“We do know historically that Centrelink has been enormously difficult for most people to access. So finding ways to improve the accessibility for people to the supports available is crucial, and one of the key ways of doing that is ensuring there are enough staff on the ground but also available behind the scenes to undertake the work that needs to be done.

“This work is going to go on for years – not just a month or two – and in that context we think it would make good sense for the Commonwealth to be investing in these employees, so that they see themselves as having long-term careers and support people who are vulnerable and are at difficult times in their lives.”

The new positions follow an erosion of public sector jobs in the past decade, with Centrelink and Services Australia hard-hit.

According to budget papers from the last nine years, the Department of Human Services has lost roughly 7514 jobs.

The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) said of these, 3823 roles have disappeared since 2013 from Centrelink and Services Australia – formerly the Department of Human Services.

A CPSU spokesperson said of the 5000 new positions announced, 500 would be employed as Services Australia casuals, 1500 would be labour-hire positions and the remaining 3000 would be employed through contractors.

One third of the latter positions are expected to be employed in South Australia through information technology company Datacom by June, with the company employing a total of 2000 people across the country.

A Datacom spokesperson said the South Australian positions would be a mix of remote and in-office jobs, based in the Modbury office.

A statement from the company said employees would support “telehealth services and other essential government services”.

“Datacom is working to provide services for those critical Federal Government agencies providing frontline services for the country’s COVID-19 response,” the company said.

“We’re working with partners including Qantas, Concentrix and Hatch.Exchange to provide employees with work during the period they have been stood down, and in some cases beyond. Datacom is actively seeking people in Adelaide, Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane.”

The spokesperson would not comment on the length of the employment contracts.

The CPSU said while the new jobs would “go some way” to helping the capacity of the department and getting help to those who needed it, “the government must continue to closely monitor the workloads of the ASP agencies.”

To increase the number of claims and queries Services Australia is able to process amid the COVID-19 crisis, the department has lifted a working limit of no more than 56 hours in a week or no more than 12 consecutive days in a fortnight.

Services Australia sites opening hours have also been extended from 7am until 11pm and staff are being offered overtime every week night and on weekends.

Services Australia General Manager Hank Jongen said since March 16 the agency had processed 587,000 JobSeeker claims and roughly $4.5 billion of the $750 Economic Support Payments had so far been made to around 6 million Australians, with the remainder to be processed in the coming days.

By the end of the week, the department is expected to have processed as many JobSeeker claims in 6 weeks as in an entire year.

On Tuesday, the Prime Minister said the work by the Department of Government Services and Centrelink  was “an extraordinary effort”.

“I said some 6000 people in addition have been put into that program, to ensure that we are able to move through that work,” he said.

“There is still a fair bit of work to go there but having now eclipsed more than half a million people, that is obviously of great concern, and that is half a million people who are needing that payment and needing that support.

“But what it does is it reinforces that both the JobSeeker and the JobKeeper payments work together to provide the necessary income support for Australians who find themselves out of work or those who are on reduced hours or who are being stood down through the course of the coronavirus crisis.”

The CPSU welcomed the changes but said without increasing the number of permanent staff, the system would struggle to sustain the number of people claiming welfare.

“All the evidence indicates that it … will take a long time to recover from this pandemic.

“Services Australia needs the ongoing staffing and resources to be able to help people through this extended period and lots of people working for labour-hire and contractors need a secure ongoing job with Services Australia.”

InDaily contacted the Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert.

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