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Centrelink explainer: your questions answered

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In the past few months, InDaily has been inundated with Centrelink-related questions from readers. We’ve compiled a selection and had them answered.

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Questions were answered by Economic Justice Australia social security lawyers, who provide free legal advice on welfare matters to people across the country.

When are the JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments due to finish?

If you receive a JobSeeker payment or another eligible Centrelink payment, you will automatically be paid an extra $550 a fortnight from 27 April for the next six months. This is called the Coronavirus Supplement. Eligible payments for this supplement include:

While JobSeeker payments will continue, the additional coronavirus supplement is due to stop on September 27.

JobKeeper payments are administered by the Australian Taxation Office and not Centrelink. It is the employers’ responsibility to elect to participate in the scheme and pass it on to their eligible employees.

The payment commenced on 30 March and be available until September 27. However, there are recent media reports which state that the Government will review the JobKeeper payment so there is a possibility that this payment may cease at an earlier date.

What happens after that date?

Unless the legislation is amended by Parliament, to raise basic rates and relax income and assets testing:

I applied for a payment and have been approved. How long should I expect to wait before receiving the money? And if it does not come within this time frame, what are the next steps I should take?

Under the temporary coronavirus arrangements, Centrelink is not applying most of the usual waiting periods. Therefore, if you are eligible for the JobSeeker payment, your payment will start from the date you claimed or the date you lodged your intention to claim.

Generally, a person would have to serve the one week Ordinary Waiting Period, Liquid Asset test Waiting Period or Seasonal Work Preclusion Period. However, if you are already serving one of these waiting periods, the remainder of the waiting period will be waived.

The Newly Arrived Residents Waiting Period (NARWP) has also temporarily been waived. In September, when the coronavirus arrangements cease, a person will be required to serve any remaining NARWP, but the time you were receiving the coronavirus supplement will count towards your NARWP.

Normally, you should expect to receive your first payment within 14-21 days, but this varies depending on each person’s individual circumstances and claim. If you have not received a payment within a reasonable timeframe, you should contact Centrelink. If you have not received a satisfactory response from Centrelink or you do not agree with a decision from Centrelink, you can contact the Uniting Communities Law Centre for further assistance and advice.

If I can’t get hold of Centrelink on the phone what should I do?

Keep persisting, and if possible try to make contact online simultaneously. Anyone who’s in hardship due to a delay in processing a claim, or cancellation of payment, should call their local welfare rights service.

How does my partner’s payment affect my JobSeeker payment?

When lodging a claim for JobSeeker, an individual will be required to meet the ordinary income tests for this payment. If you are partnered, when your partner’s income exceeds $3,068.80 per fortnight ($79,788.80 per annum) that is when you will no longer be eligible for JobSeeker.

A person and/or their partner’s assets will not be taken into account under the current coronavirus arrangements. However, please note once the asset test is reinstated, your payment may be affected or cease if your combined asset total exceeds the limits.

Could I end up with a debt from the JobSeeker payment? And how do I avoid this?

Yes, there is a possibility to end up with a debt, as with almost all Centrelink payments. Therefore, the best way to reduce your chances of a debt is to ensure you are reporting your income (as well as your partner’s income if applicable) from employment each fortnight. If you identify errors in your last report, contact Centrelink immediately to advise of the error. Also, it is crucial to advise of any changes of circumstances within 14 days to Centrelink.

If you do end up with a debt and disagree with the decision, you can contact the Uniting Communities Law Centre and discuss your matter and offer advice as to what your options are and your appeal rights, including requesting a review through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

Could I end up with a debt from the JobKeeper payment? And how do I avoid this?

Yes. If JobSeeker is back-paid for a period that JobKeeper was paid, you will have a debt. If possible, keep some of the JobSeeker arrears aside to repay the debt. If Centrelink advises you of a debt and you can’t repay it in a lump sum it can be paid in instalments. You can negotiate how much you repay each fortnight.

You will also be overpaid if you’re receiving a Centrelink payment, such as JobSeeker or DSP, and you don’t promptly advise Centrelink that you or your partner are receiving JobKeeper.

You may also be overpaid if you’re receiving Family Tax Benefit (FTB) and you don’t advise Centrelink that you or your partner are receiving JobKeeper. JobKeeper is assessable income for FTB, just like employment earnings, and you need to advise Centrelink of a new income estimate for the financial year once JobKeeper payments start.

What are mutual obligations?

In order to receive Centrelink payments, JobSeekers generally have Mutual Obligation Requirements, such as looking for work and participating in activities that will improve their employment prospects.

The main objective of Mutual Obligation requirements is to help job seekers find paid work and to support themselves financially as soon as possible. Mutual Obligation requirements may also allow some job seekers to contribute to the community that supports them while they are unemployed.

Mutual Obligations are usually agreed to in a job plan either with Centrelink or a employment services provider. A person’s job plan is usually reviewed on a regular basis.
Some people may apply for an exemption from their Mutual Obligations (for example temporary incapacity, special family circumstances, the death of a partner) and this may be granted by Centrelink.

Who will be required to meet mutual obligations?

A Centrelink recipient receiving the JobSeeker Payment, Youth Allowance, Parenting Payment Single (after youngest child turns 6) and Special Benefit (under certain conditions) will be required to meet their mutual obligations.

Those recipients who are exempt do not need to participate in meeting mutual obligation requirements.

How will welfare recipients meet their mutual obligations and attend JobActive meetings while movement restrictions are still in place and large parts of the economy are shut down but the mutual obligation freeze lifts?

On April 22 it was announced that mutual obligation requirements will continue to be lifted until May 22. This means that during this period no compliance action will be taken for job seekers who do not report their attendance at appointments or activities, which means no one’s payments will be suspended.

The Government also announced changes to mutual obligation requirements to reduce or eliminate the need for face-to-face contact, when requested by a job seeker or job service provider. We understand that these changes are likely to remain in place while social distancing measures are in effect – i.e., well beyond May 22.

These include:

Current income support recipients who cannot meet mutual obligation requirements can be granted a Major Personal Crisis exemption, without having to provide evidence such as a medical certificate.

Students receiving Youth Allowance (student) or other study related payments who are unable to attend studies due to coronavirus would be taken to have a reasonable excuse for not meeting study activity requirements for their payments.

Centrelink has suspended Mutual Obligation requirements for JobSeeker Payment, Youth Allowance as a job seeker and Parenting Payment until May 22. Once the suspension has ceased, it will be expected that recipients will participate in Mutual Obligation requirements unless they have been granted an exemption.

Where can people who are ineligible for both the JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments go for financial help?

If a person is not eligible for a Centrelink payment or if they want to discuss their Centrelink matter, a person can contact the Uniting Communities Law Centre (UCLC) and speak to one of their Social Security Rights Solicitors on 8342 1800.

In addition, if a person disagrees with a decision regarding JobSeeker, they can contact the UCLC for advice regarding their appeal rights, including appealing to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

The UCLC is a member centre of Economic Justice Australia (EJA). EJA is the peak organisation for Community Legal Centres providing specialist advice to people on their social security issues and rights. For people in other States and Territories requiring advice or assistance with their Social Security matters, they can contact their local EJA member centre at Economic Justice Australia.

If a person requires credit and debt assistance, they can contact the UCLC and speak to one of their financial counsellors or solicitors. The UCLC is a service provided by Uniting Communities. Uniting Communities is a not-for-profit organisation working alongside more than 74,000 South Australians each year.

They offer more than 90 services to support the needs of both individuals and the South Australian community, across a range of areas. These include mental health and counselling; residential aged care and support for independent living; housing crisis and emergency support; disability services; services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people; financial and legal; drug and alcohol counselling; family relationships; and respite and carer support.

The government has said the coronavirus supplement was designed for people in the workforce. Why have carers – many of whom work full-time providing care for someone with a severe disability or medical condition – and people on the Disability Support Pension – many of whom are also contributing members of the workforce – not received a boost in payments?

The rationale is that Disability Support Pension (DSP) and Carer Payment are both pensions, already paid at higher basic rates and with more generous income and assets tests, designed to provide long-term income security.

The Government chose to target the COVID-19 rate increases and means testing changes primarily to JobSeekers as a temporary measure to relieve hardship among a new cohort of social security recipients, but necessarily extending these measures to existing JobSeeker recipients.

Many DSP and carer advocacy organisations have advocated for the COVID-19 Supplement to be extended to DSP and Carer Payment, arguing that the failure to do so recipients is inequitable/discriminatory – and fails to recognise the contribution of pensioners to the paid and unpaid workforce.

This advocacy is continuing.

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