Parents are being prevented from accessing the government’s childcare rebate and other family payments because Centrelink staff are blocking phone lines and fudging caller wait times when reporting back to their bosses.
Calls to Centrelink have been flooded in recent weeks in response to the government’s controversial robo debt recovery scheme, which is designed to help repair the budget by clawing back billions of dollars in overpaid welfare payments.
But as the new school year kicks in, parents have also taken to social media to complain that Centrelink’s families assistance phone line is constantly engaged and it’s making it difficult for them to process claims for the government’s childcare rebate.
Lisa Newman deputy national president of the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) says Centrelink’s phone lines are being systematically blocked by staff when they are overwhelmed with caller enquiry. “The telephone system blocks calls depending on call volumes and then it starts dumping calls,” she said, adding that Centrelink staff are also “gaming” the phone lines. Centrelink has not denied that systematic call blocking is happening.
Department of Human Services General Manager Hank Jongen says improvements are needed. “The department is in the process of introducing a new telephony platform for Centrelink phone lines, which will allow us to better manage call wait times and respond to customer calls. “Major work is also currently underway to replace the department’s antiquated IT system. In the longer term, the overhaul of our IT system will allow us to modernise the delivery of welfare payments and services,” he said.
It is not uncommon for callers to various Centrelink departments to be placed on hold for many hours before either being answered or the call is abruptly ended. Centrelink staff went on strike over Christmas in pursuit of a pay rise and in response to the sacking of thousands of staff, many from the families assistance department. Another strike is planned for next week but this time in response to the government’s handling of the scheme and the bungling of incorrect debt notices being sent to hundreds of welfare recipients. Casual and largely inexperienced workers were hired to replace many of those Centrelink staff who were sacked.
Ms Newman says because of workplace pressures, a high number of casual staff are now “gaming” the phone system by fudging the caller wait times back to their bosses, to ensure they meet key performance indicators or KPIs. By doing this they are able to “fudge” the actual wait time that they report back to government, but in truth the customer gets little benefit. Centrelink’s KPI wait times for staff is 16 minutes.
But what many people are experiencing is wait times of over an hour or more. “What the casuals are doing, they are not dealing with concerns. They are taking people out of one phone line queue and putting them into another queue,” says Ms Newman. “What we have seen is a collapsing level of the capacity to provide basic services, and government and department officials are saying there is no problem. “But there is a problem and anyone who has tried to use those services knows there is a problem,” she says.
Centrelink maintains that last year, the average speed of answering for Centrelink phone lines was 13.5 minutes, well below the Department’s KPI of 16 minutes. “This is an average figure and we do understand that some of the 220,000 Australians who call each day will experience waiting times longer than this,” says Mr Jongen.
But it’s not just Centrelink’s phone lines which are frustrating Australians.
Reports have also emerged that branch staff are turning away parents who ask for face-to-face support on family assistance matters such as childcare benefits. Staff at the Tweed Heads New South Wales branch told one mother last week that she’d be better off writing to her local member of parliament because staff were no longer technically trained to answer simple enquiries on the government’s new MyGov system, used to claim services such as the childcare rebate.
The Liberal Government is planning to overhaul childcare payments in July next year which would means test multiple childcare support payments, including the rebate. Currently the rebate is capped at around $7500 per child for each financial year. Parents are encouraged to apply for it through the MyGov system and can wait many weeks before knowing if they have been successful for money back. The reforms also plan to streamline the existing digital processing system in an attempt to make it easier for parents than it currently is through the MyGov automated service. A spokeswoman from the Department of Education said that “Families will be provided with appropriate support as the new IT system is introduced.”
But Ms Newman doubts it will improve services. “I have got no reason to suspect out of recent changes we will be any different. “We ask, and I have asked the (Human Services) department, what those changes will mean and whether they would increase a peak in demand, and they never get back to me. “Blind Freddie can see the department is in crisis. I have no reason to suspect that those changes will be handled any better than the Medicare, debt or student payments,” she said.
Bianca Hartge-Hazelman is a financial journalist and founder of women's money-goal magazine Financy.com.au.
This article first appeared on Financy.com.au