The commonwealth agency tasked with administering welfare support to Australians has been under increased pressure to deliver services quickly while protecting the health of staff and the community in recent weeks, amid COVID-19 lockdowns in three states.
Services Australia general manager Hank Jongen told The Mandarin the agency has processed more than 1.5 million claims for the government’s COVID-19 Disaster Payment to workers who have been impacted by recent public health orders.
Under the disaster payment scheme, which was announced in June, eligible workers from COVID-19 hotspots can receive payments of up to $750 per week, based on the amount of hours of work they have lost due to lockdowns.
Jongen said the agency has extended its operating hours for many of its services in order to deliver the support to workers in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia.
“Some 90% of claims have been made online, which is the fastest and easiest way to claim,” he said.
“We have significantly boosted frontline staff to manage the temporary surge in calls and claims and we’ll continue to respond in this way when the public needs us most. Our staff are doing a great job handling the demand from people who need our help, supported by a strong system, with payments mostly being made within a day or two.”
But politicians and unions have raised concerns about the long queues and wait times outside the agency’s Centrelink offices and over the phone.
Last week Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie urged the government to deploy more public servants to Services Australia to meet the increased demand. The Community and Public Sector Union and the Australian Council of Trade Unions, meanwhile, voiced concern about the agency having ‘fewer permanent staff than it had before the pandemic’, and the health risks to frontline Centrelink staff and its customers during the recent COVID-19 outbreaks.
But Jongen said staff working from the agency’s 327 offices have been implementing provisions such as physical distancing, controlled entry into service centres, and the use of masks, hand sanitiser, and poly-carbonate screens to keep staff and customers safe during recent lockdowns.
He said Services Australia would continue to control entry to service centres and the use of poly-carbonate screens and hand sanitiser were ‘likely to remain’ into the future.
To keep up with the high demand for services, the agency has been utilising a blended workforce of Australian Public Service staff, service delivery partners, labour hire workers and contractors.
“This blended workforce has been specially designed to give us flexibility needed to respond to changes in our service delivery demand,” Jongen said.
This week Services Australia has faced criticism for issuing Centrelink debt letters to thousands of individuals who received JobKeeper payments during the pandemic, while profitable businesses that also received the payment have not been forced to pay back the money.
The agency has also recently come under fire for issuing childcare subsidy debts to families that have been impacted by the pandemic, prompting the government to announce a pause on debt raising and recovery in locked down areas last week.