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Speaking up: Life at the other end of Centrelink phone calls

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InDaily recently reported on the mental health impacts for some of the more than one million Australians trying to navigate and live within the welfare system. Today, we report on the toll taken on outsourced Centrelink call centre workers. Four contractors speak up about life at the other end of the line.

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The former and current workers, based at Datacom’s Modbury call centre, are among hundreds of labour hire workers answering calls from Centrelink welfare recipients at centres around the nation.

InDaily has chosen not to identify the staff.

According to the Community and Public Sector Union, Centrelink’s use of contractors increased after a 2015-16 budget decision to place a cap on public sector numbers, which froze staffing at 2007 levels.

The union has previously said government agencies were forced to spend money on labour hire workers as a result.

Datacom Connect, the parent company of the north-eastern Modbury call centre, is one of a number of external labour hire companies awarded Centrelink contracts totalling more than $1 billion since 2016.

AusTender figures show Datacom Connect was awarded a two-year contract, due to expire this year, worth more than $120 million.

It’s Modbury IT training and call centre has won contracts for a number of federal departments and said it employs more than 1000 South Australians.

A Datacom worker told InDaily that staff were paid lower rates than their public sector counterparts.

“We’re on the contract call centre award and it’s just base award rates but … if we were in the public service system, it’s another probably $20,000 a year, and a lot of it comes down to that one fact – there’s a lot of churn,” he said.

The worker said he’d seen the impact on colleagues trying to help Centrelink clients seeking information.

“The really empathetic people who work here find it quite hard, because you get someone calling in and they’re crying and then the person (worker) will start crying as well,” he said.

I know a few people who worked here who were empathetic people and they couldn’t work here because it was too stressful and too emotional.

“There’s no ongoing support.

“When we first start, we have half a day with a Services Australia social worker. So, you go through something like self-harm and suicide and then a couple of hours on domestic violence and things to look out for and things to handle in a call.

“And that’s all we’ve had – half a day.”

The worker said under the Services Australia contract, staff took calls on all manner of Centrelink-related matters after two weeks training.

“There are so many different things to know.” he said.

“Like the reasons why someone’s payments might be cancelled or affected by income. Or the hundreds of different processes for appeals and waiting period and all of the different tests: the income tests, the assets tests.

“All of the different income products someone might have, like an income stream or someone can have a trust or someone can have a private company. Someone may have put down a trust five years ago and suddenly that’s affecting their payment. We are not trained in how that works.”

He said inadequate training and lower wages discouraged staff from remaining in the roles long-term.

To have hundreds of people, who are fairly poorly paid and trained, taking calls from hundreds of people can lead to problems.

You’re putting people in charge of people lives … if they make a mistake it can mean people might miss out on payment.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Datacom told InDaily that staff were provided with initial and ongoing mental health support.

“Datacom does offer employee support programs to our staff. There is a full-time onsite counsellor at Datacom Modbury available to help any employee navigating a challenging situation,” the statement said.

“There is also a wider Datacom program, which offers access to confidential counselling sessions from qualified, experienced psychologists who can assist in addressing any work, personal or family related concerns.

“It also includes wellbeing coaching and weight loss counselling. This service can also be used by immediate family members.”

The spokesperson said training was “dependent on the line of business” and could be “up to four weeks”.

He said that while the company’s “requirements to deliver service” had been “quite fluid” during the pandemic and the impact of restrictions throwing hundreds of thousands of workers onto JobKeeper or JobSeeker, the company had adjusted training packages to meet the shifting needs of customers.

“In every case, we ensure our people are given adequate training which includes a very closely monitored support program when our people first start to take calls.”

The spokesperson said they could not discuss the mental health supports required as a result of individual contracts or disclose Datacom Modbury’s attrition rate, due to commercial sensitivity.

He said staff were paid according to the award rate and market data where relevant.

Despite Datacom’s support services, a former worker told InDaily that she chose to leave the job after her mental health deteriorated.

“I went to the doctor multiple times about my mental health while I was there and I ended up being prescribed Valium. I thought I can’t go back to a workplace where I have to take a medication just to go to work,” she said.

“Just before I left I had a week off, because my doctor told me I needed a week off, and then I tried to go back and my brain was like: ‘you can’t go back’ – and I quit on the spot.”

She said when she started with the service centre she was making outbound calls. A few months later she began receiving inbound calls and her mental health declined.

“Generally outbound was a lot easier. It still wasn’t fun, but it was a lot of people getting onto the system who hadn’t had prior anger about the system yet,” she said.

“But then I moved to the employment services inbound line and … a lot of the calls were about people needing urgent payments and advanced payments, so it was listening to their stories and either having to accept it or deny it.

“There was one stage where I had to deny someone a funeral payment, because it didn’t fit the criteria, which was not fun. They were crying on the phone and I had to tell them: ‘No, I can’t give you money to go see your family member’s funeral’.”

She said that while she tried to help people understand the processes to the best of her ability, she regularly copped verbal abuse from callers, who were anxious, frustrated and confused about the system.

She said it wan’t unusual to see staff crying at their desks because of the calls.

You didn’t know who was going to be on the other line. They could start yelling at you or be really nice, so it always made me a bit anxious about what kind of call it was going to be,” she said.

“Some of them were like an hour, or two hours, it’s a long time to put emotional energy into and then if you get another one of those calls, it’s really exhausting.

You could speak to your team leader about it, depending on your team leader, some of them were nicer than others.”

In a statement, Services Australia general manager Hank Jongen said: “The wellbeing of our staff and customers is always our top priority.”

“Our use of service delivery partners is not new,” he said.

“We use our blended workforce model, including the use of labour hire staff and service delivery partners, to give us the flexibility needed to respond to changes in service demand.”

He said contractors received the same training as public sector staff.

“While initial formal training typically varies from 4 to 10 weeks, to assist us with the recent unprecedented demand on our services since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we used a streamlined process where possible.

“This focussed on the key skills required for very specific tasks, and incorporated all legislative requirements.”

A second current worker, who started in February 2019, said while the job was “absolutely not for everyone” he felt he was able to make a difference in the role.

“Being here for as long as I have, I’ve seen a lot of people come and go. It definitely depends on your previous experiences and your current mental health I guess, but it can definitely take a hit,” he said.

“But I think that it just depends on your point of view and how well you are able to compartmentalise.

“Every job has their ups and downs but I find helping people with things like that they have enough money to get through or helping pay their rent. That stuff is really important and makes me feel like I’m making a difference.”

Staff said those working on Services Australia contracts tell callers they’re from that government agency.

Datacom said staff were authorised to act on behalf of clients.

“On the phone, our people are representatives of our customers and therefore they are to advise they are working for whoever the client is,” a spokesperson said.

A second former worker said she didn’t feel comfortable advising people she was from the government department.

She, like the other workers, also spoke of poor training.

I’m a smart girl but I couldn’t figure out the system because I wasn’t given enough time. I was coding people’s medical certificates to determine whether they were able to go onto or continue on the Disability Pension and I had no idea what I was doing. I rote-learned it,” the woman said.

“There’s absolutely no incentive to learn the job, because learning the job takes time, and if you choose to learn the job then you’ll be running behind and then you won’t meet your quotas.

“So you might be tasked with 30 tasks for the day and when you start not meeting that, you’ve got quality assurance coming down on you really hard. So there’s no incentive to learn.”

She said she quit the role after five weeks due to its impact on her mental health.

I did not have a day when I wasn’t screamed at by a client, I didn’t have a day when I didn’t hear from a suicidal caller. I was broken after five weeks. I’d lost about six kilos.

I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t sleeping. It was just existential dread. I was a wreck. 

I had one lady who was intellectually impaired. She was homeless, she was living in her car and she was very confused about how she was going to meet her mutual obligations for Centrelink. She has mutual obligations, which were to present at her employment service provider. That broke me.

“She’s homeless and I’m telling her, no you won’t get your money unless you go and meet with this service provider who is eight kilometres away.

“I was very privileged, I was able to quit and walk into a job in bookkeeping within a couple of weeks in a great team.

“The culture in there was toxic.”

If this article raised issues for you, LifeLine is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Dial 13 11 14. Beyond Blue and headspace are other national organisations offering comprehensive mental health support.

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