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Centrelink "mutual obligations" to resume for unemployed - but questions remain

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Centrelink’s mutual obligation requirements for job seekers  – suspended after coronavirus restrictions crippled businesses nationwide – will begin to resume from next week, amid questions over how it will run and how businesses will cope with an expected influx of job applicants.

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The Federal Government last week announced mutual obligations would recommence in three stages, with stage one due to begin on Tuesday, June 9.

Mutual obligations are a range of measures job seekers are required to meet in order to receive their welfare payments.

They are part of the government’s Jobactive program and include attending meetings with a job service provider and applying for up to 20 jobs each month.

Job seekers who do not meet their requirements can be penalised and lose their payments.

In March, it was announced that mutual obligation requirements would be suspended as the coronavirus pandemic forced roughly 600,000 Australians out of work, with many forced onto the welfare support system to survive.

As part of the suspension, people on the government’s JobSeeker payment (formerly Newstart) did not have to attend meetings, but could volunteer to look for up to four jobs a month if they so chose.

But, according to a statement from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment, mutual obligations are set to resume again in a limited capacity.

The statement said: “During this period, suspensions and financial penalties will not apply.”

“Special circumstances exemptions will continue to be available from Services Australia for job seekers who require them,” it said.

“Sole traders and those who are self-employed will continue to be exempted from requirements, to allow them to work to re-establish their business.

“Details of further changes to mutual obligation requirements will be made available in the coming weeks.”

The statement also said job seekers would be required to attend at least one appointment with their employment service provider, which may be done over the phone or online.

It did not say who would be eligible for an exemption, how exemptions would be applied, how many jobs people would be required to apply for, how regularly participants would need to attend appointments or how long each phase would last.

A spokesperson for the Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business Michaela Cash told InDaily, “as steps are taken to re-open the economy, the Australian Government is focused on getting Australians back into work.”

“The re-introduction of mutual obligations will be gradual and based on a phased approach. The Government has confirmed that no suspensions or penalties will apply during the first phase,” the spokesperson said.

“Job seekers are encouraged to remain engaged and connected with their providers during the suspension of mutual obligation requirements.  Their providers can offer assistance and referral to jobs, support services, and advice on skills and training options.

“As businesses across Australia reopen or begin to operate at full capacity, new job opportunities will become available. The return of mutual obligations will enable Jobactive providers to connect job seekers to employers and ensure job seekers are aware of opportunities available for training, up-skilling or employment. 

“As mutual obligations are reintroduced, the three-phased approach be a gradual. There will be no minimum requirement for job searches in the first phase of mutual obligations.”

The decision to recommence the requirements follows a gradual removal of coronavirus restrictions and the reopening of businesses across the country.

However, welfare advocates have cautioned the government not to introduce forced job search requirements for at least another three months.

Australian Council of Social Services principal advisor Peter Davidson told InDaily mutual obligations should not recommence while a number of industries were still in hibernation.

“In the expert panel review of employment services, one of the big complaints from employers was, ‘we’re getting a barrage of applications from people as a result of this rigid 20 jobs a month requirement’. And in many cases the applicants weren’t suited to the job,” Davidson said.

“So we need to do better. This is not helping unemployed people, it’s not helping employers either and so that is why if and when requirements are reinstated they should be reinstated gradually and we shouldn’t go straight back to something like 20 jobs a month.

“And the system of employment assistance and compliance should be altered so it’s more personalised and people are encouraged to apply for jobs that are more suitable for them – that’s better for everybody.”

Mutual obligations have previously led to a number of inquiries, including a senate report last year which found people on the scheme were gaining employment “in spite of Jobactive, not because of it”.

The inquiry followed an expert advisory panel report in 2018, which outlined a number of recommendations on how employment services could best assist job seekers and employers.

In a submission to the expert panel review, the Business Council of Australia said, “while Jobactive has been an improvement on previous iterations of employment services, there remains room for improvement.”

The council recommended improving the suitability of job seekers for long-term employment, better meeting the individual needs of employers and reflecting changes in the workforce, orienting resources towards improving outcomes for disadvantaged job seekers, and improving the quality of services delivered by employment services.

Davidson said while the expert panel’s recommendations were due to be introduced in 2022, “some of the changes … really should be bought forward so that those case loads are reduced and the compliance heavy system is altered.”

“And that is really important before compliance and penalties are reinstated, among other reasons, because there is a large group of roughly half a million people who will be new to the system,” Davidson said.

“Many of them are young and recently unemployed people who haven’t had experience of the system before, and many of them are very anxious.

“We know that when young people are isolated at home for long periods of time they’ve built up anxiety and can’t connect with their peer group and they’re unemployed, they’re unfamiliar with the system and their income is uncertain.

“We can’t go back to a system, prior to Covid-19, where if you don’t show up to a job service provider your next payment is automatically suspended by the IT system and you have to scramble to contact your provider to get it reinstated before you lose that next payment.”

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