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Centrelink clients turn to Facebook group for help

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Thousands of Australians are calling on a Facebook group for welfare-related information, as the coronavirus pandemic forces hundreds of thousands of people to navigate Centrelink.

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The private social media group, known as Centrelink and Other Info, was started three years ago for people to discuss and share information relating to Centrelink, child support and changes to Services Australia, formerly the Department of Human Services.

There is also a Facebook page by the same name for people to post information regarding Centrelink.

Founder Kym Mercer said Centrelink and Other Info was intended to be a place for people who “had been through Centrelink” to help others navigate what she termed a “broken system”.

But in the wake of the coronavirus, the group had become the de facto information hub for almost 62,000 people requiring timely and easy to understand information relating to the government agency.

In the past two months alone, the group has grown by 16,525 members, coinciding with the influx of people accessing Centrelink payments.

The increase in members has come despite the Federal Government announcing 5000 extra staff being drafted in to help Services Australia cope with unprecedented demand.

The new staff followed a Centrelink website crash as an estimated 100,000 users tried to access welfare payments after the Federal Government announced it was closing down large parts of the economy to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in March.

Huge queues formed at Centrelink offices across the country as many Australians tried to contact the federal agency for the first time.

Meanwhile, Mercer and the five other administrators who maintain the Centrelink and Other Info group have been swamped with hundreds of questions day after day from people desperate for information.

“A lot of people who haven’t been on welfare before, who don’t have kids and haven’t claimed parenting leave or child support … are asking, ‘what should we do?’” Mercer said.

“And often if you don’t have information, Centrelink are not very forthcoming. So people are trying to find out what they should be entitled to and what they should be asking for.

“Sometimes, even for myself who knows the (Services Australia) website quite well, it can still take me hours to find what I’m looking for, and I know the terminology.”

Claudia Ienco, a member of the Anti-Poverty Network SA, said groups such as Centrelink and Other Info were necessary as they were run by people with lived experience of the welfare system, who knew their way around different Services Australia programs, including Jobactive.

Jobactive is the Federal Government’s main employment service, which unemployed Australians are obliged to engage with in order to keep their social security payment.

A Senate report last year called for the program to be overhauled, due to harsh and unfair measures.

“A lot of people come to the Centrelink and Other Info group as well as the Anti-Poverty Facebook page and the AUWU (Australian Unemployed  Workers Union) because they are … being told by their Jobactive providers they need to fill more work for the dole hours than are actually required, or they’re required to sign a job plan straight away, when they actually have a couple of days, or other requirements, which are either left out or wrong,” Ienco said.

“They can seem minor but they can result in really unnecessary, unfair and harmful suspensions to their payments as well.

“Many people don’t know that they actually can negotiate and stand up for their rights to more of an extent than their Jobactive provider might be letting on.”

Ienco said people who had been through Centrelink’s system were able to break down the sometimes difficult to understand language and procedures and share their understanding with others.

“Peers with experience in similar situations can help to show each other that they’re not alone. They can support each other through the appointments with case managers and they can share information in different, more accessible and conversational ways,” Ienco said.

Earlier this month, InDaily reported welfare recipients had been left confused by the date they’d receive their first temporary coronavirus supplement due to the way the policy measure was worded.

Centrelink and Other Info founder Kym Mercer.

Mercer said such confusion had become part and parcel of dealing with the agency, which was only made worse as people were unsure about where they could go to for information or quick responses to questions during the pandemic.

Services Australia general manager Hank Jongen told InDaily the department was “working around the clock to provide the best possible support to Australians at this time”.

“We’ve responded swiftly and sensitively, and made record payments in record time,” he said.

People with urgent business or complex needs are supported as a priority, no matter how they contact us.”

In 2018, Anglicare released a damning report into Centrelink’s automated system, which was based on the experiences of Anglicare staff and clients.

According to the Paying the Price of Welfare Reform report, the social services system was “deliberately designed to made it hard for people” . The report concluded the system placed a burden on community support services to help people navigate Centrelink, as well as placing the onus on clients to ask the correct questions and know where to source information.

It also found Centrelink services caused mental stress due to errors, delays and long phone wait times.

In the two years since the report was published, Mercer told InDaily Services Australia had only become harder to navigate.

“There have been so many changes so quickly, even the Centrelink workers sometimes don’t know what’s going on,” she said.

“It used to be, many years ago, that you could go into a Centrelink and they would provide you with all of the options of what was available to you.

“They used to have time. They used to be a service centre but with all the staffing cuts, the workers just don’t have time. And often people’s issues go across multiple departments so one department won’t be able to tell you what a different department does.”

Mercer said she had recently been forced to stop people from posting on the Facebook page in order to give herself and the other group administrators some respite. 

Instead, people send the administrators questions via direct messages.

“Once we’ve received a few questions in a row about the same topic, admin are posting about it,” Mercer said.

“Any new announcements that are made, we seek the official information and post it with guidelines. The other day I posted a screenshot from a union which had a really good question and answer relating to the JobSeeker payment.”

Mercer said she spent hours each day hunting through various Services Australia social media posts and government statements as well as making inquiries with the Federal department to source and verify information.

“My admin donate their time, like myself, to help others … because we understand the system, but not everyone does,” she said.

“But it’s very draining, constantly being in that headspace and trying to answer all of the questions coming through.

“I’d love to get to the point where the group isn’t needed – and that means the government is giving clear, concise, easy to read information for people to understand.”

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