The union representing Centrelink bureaucrats is demanding that state and federal governments divert all stages of the application for disaster-support payments online.
The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) claims agencies have not been supported in the same way they were during lockdowns of 2020 to help vulnerable Australians access the national safety net quickly and from a distance. It wants the government to take immediate steps that mean Centrelink service centres are not inundated with people seeking the COVID-19 disaster payments.
Unlike last year, when measures were taken to prevent queues that undermined 1.5m social distancing rules outside Centrelink service centres, the union said people seeking support today are being sent to Centrelink premises to complete an in-person ID check.
Alistair Waters, CPSU national president issued a statement on Wednesday saying that with residents of NSW, Victoria and South Australia now subject to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, there has been a steady uptick in the demand for the services of Centrelink and Services Australia (SA). With this demand, more people are presenting onsite at Centrelink centres.
“Our members are trying their best to help the tens of thousands of Australians at one of the hardest times of their lives, but they are concerned about community safety with long queues and long waits outside Centrelink offices,” Waters said.
“The safety of our communities is key to meeting all the health and economic challenges facing us. That is why both people needing help and Centrelink and Services Australia staff must be protected to ensure that services can continue to be rolled out as quickly as possible.”
Waters demanded that a system be established where eligible people could securely apply and access their support payments through Services Australia remotely, adding that four-weeks into the NSW lockdown the issue should have already been addressed.
“We are calling on the Morrison government to action every available option to limit community interaction and upgrade online access, just as they did last year.”
“The government cannot ignore the lines outside Centrelink while the health advice is to stay home and socially distance,” Waters said.
In a response to the CPSU position, Services Australia’s general manager Hank Jongen noted that 93% of over 518,000 disaster payments being granted to NSW residents had been executed online. He confirmed that this process did not require in-person ID checks but rather uploading identifying documents to the agency portal.
Jongen also said phone services were available for any person who wanted to apply for a claim but could not access the internet to do so. Phone applications to Services Australia were able to provide identifying details over the phone, he added.
“Our staff and systems are doing a very strong job handling the demand from people who need our help, with payments mostly being made by the next day, and in some instances as soon as 40 minutes,” Jongen said.
“While we’ve had increased demand, call wait times for this [COVD-19 disaster] payment has improved over the week to around 20 minutes.”
Jongen added that risks to COVIDsafe compliance at service centres were mitigated by onsite capacity limits which prevented the total headcount of staff and customers who could together at any one time. He stressed that customers who did have to show up to a service centre in person would be served as quickly and efficiently as the health order restrictions permitted.
“The health and safety of our customers and staff is our highest priority, and we are strictly adhering to the health orders set down by the relevant state governments.
“This may result in a noticeable queue in some locations, however this does not mean we’re dealing with increased demand in our service centres,” he said.