COVID-19: Some Centrelink staff to continue debt-recovery activities, others to be redeployed

By Shannon Jenkins

April 15, 2020

Every day, public servants across the world write millions of formal memos, notes and briefings. (Photobank/Adobe)

Services Australia staff will continue to pursue debt-related activities that are “beneficial to customers” while other activities have been frozen for six months, according to an agency spokesperson.

On the morning of April 3, emails seen by 7.30 show indicated Service Australia’s general manager debt and appeals Anthony Seebach informed staff of a pause on debt activities, stating the agency would redeploy staff to process benefits claims.

But hours later, national manager debt management Pauline O’Neill emailed employees to alert them that “a number of critical functions undertaken within the branch” would continue as usual, including “case managed recovery”.

According to 7.30, O’Neill told staff the activities that would continue included inbound telephony services (raising and recovery), subject matter expert reviews for appeals, and “deceased estate work” — the recovery of debts from recipients who have died.

Then, later that afternoon, government services minister Stuart Robert announced that welfare debt raising and recovery activities would cease for six months.

“The Australian government is implementing a pause on debt raising and recovery activity through Services Australia to help ease pressure on people’s budgets during the coronavirus pandemic. The decision allows Australians to focus on their personal situation during these difficult times, and supports the government’s priority to get assistance to people as quickly as possible,” he said.

“Pausing certain debt activity also enables the redeployment of staff to assist in areas of critical need, like claims processing for those Australians impacted by the pandemic. Work relating to fraud and serious non-compliance will continue in order to maintain the integrity of the welfare system.

“The temporary pause will be for an initial period of six months. Existing repayment arrangements will continue unless people contact Services Australia.”

READ MORE: Services Australia to receive extra 5000 workers

The freeze has been applied to a range of debt-raising and -recovery activities, including those connected to social security payments, Family Tax Benefit and Child Care Subsidy, according to Services Australia spokesperson Hank Jongen.

“Activities that will cease include referrals to external collection agencies, as well as the garnisheeing of tax refunds. During the pause, we are not asking customers to commence repaying money they owe except where it relates to fraud or serious non-compliance,” he said.

Jongen told The Mandarin that residual debt-related activities that would continue have been “limited to those that are beneficial to customers”.

“For example, those that prevent debt arising, enable customers to speak to a debt management officer to change their payment arrangements, finalising compensation clearances, and enable executors to finalise deceased estates,” he added.

He said all advice sent to Services Australia staff has been consistent with Robert’s April 3 announcement.

“Reports that there has been miscommunication are factually incorrect. These reports do not accurately reflect how the operational arrangements announced by the minister have been communicated by Services Australia executives to their staff,” he said.

“Following the minister’s announcement, a senior official distributed a broad internal announcement to staff notifying them of the change. Subsequent emails were then sent with more tailored advice specific to individual staff roles.”

READ MORE: Services Australia puts measures in place to deal with ‘unprecedented demand’

Since businesses began closing due to the coronavirus pandemic, Centrelink has received an influx of thousands of Australians attempting to apply for welfare through offices, online, and over the phone.

To deal with the massive increase in demand, Services Australia is receiving 5000 extra workers to help deliver support measures for those who have lost their income due to COVID-19.

The agency has also upgraded the capacity of the government’s online portal for welfare services, myGov.

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