Economic Justice Australia
The outbreak of COVID-19 has created an unprecedented shake-up in Australia’s social security system. The unemployment payment was increased for the first time in over 30 years – temporarily; servicing arrangements were adapted for social distancing; mutual obligations were relaxed; and debt recovery was paused.
The pace and scale of change has put significant strain on government and advocacy services, as claimants attempt to navigate an often unfamiliar and sometimes confusing system, with necessarily short lead-in times for implementation of complex legislative amendments to payment waiting periods and means testing.
EJA’s member centres have been on the frontline of this shift as one of the first points of contact for people experiencing issues with Centrelink. Casework trends reveal several key pressure points.
It is clear that although new payment and eligibility arrangements are supporting wider groups of claimants, some cohorts of people in need remain ineligible for any assistance and have been left behind. At the same time, the need to adapt to the realities of social isolation is compromising the accessibility of the review and appeals systems – especially for people who face systemic access and equity barriers such as people from CALD communities, Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people, and people with disability.
New payment and eligibility arrangements
To account for rising rates of unemployment, predicted to peak at 9.25 per cent in December, the eligibility requirements of the JobSeeker Payment have been temporarily widened. Under the temporary arrangements, a person may be eligible for JobSeeker payment if they:
- have been stood down without pay as a permanent employee
- have lost income as a sole trader, self-employed person, casual worker or contract worker or
- have lost income due to being required to care for someone who is affected by COVID-19.
Until 24 September 2020, assets will not be taken into account for the payment, and more generous income tests apply. Several waiting periods, such as the one-week Ordinary Waiting Period and the Newly Arrived Residents Waiting Period, will remain suspended until 31 December 2020. Additionally, the rate of JobSeeker Payment (previously Newstart Allowance) has been temporarily increased for the first time in over 30 years with the introduction of the Coronavirus Supplement. Adding the $550 fortnightly Supplement effectively doubles the basic rate – at least until 24 September when the Supplement will drop to $250 – meaning recipients are now able to live above the poverty line, albeit temporarily. It remains to be seen whether any increase in the JobSeeker Payment rate will be maintained once the Coronavirus Supplement is phased out, as the Government faces calls from NGOs, local governments and community members to ‘raise the rate for good’.
Despite the broad increase in support, an estimated 1.1 million temporary visa holders remain locked out of Commonwealth income support. Eligibility requirements continue to restrict temporary visa holders’ access to both JobSeeker Payment the JobKeeper wage subsidy, and to Special Benefit – the last resort Social Security safety net payment. One of our member centres recently assisted a client on a temporary skilled worker visa who had lost his job because of COVID-19 and was supporting his wife and two children. Since the client lost his job, the family has survived on his annual leave payout, but are soon due to run out of money. They will then have no means of support, and will be reliant on charitable assistance. As is the case for the people who have worked and lived in Australia for extended periods on long-stay temporary visas returning to their home country is not an option. Our member centres expect to see an increase in cases of individuals left without support as the labour market absorbs the full impacts of COVID-19.
Contact and claim arrangements
Centrelink has made a number of changes in their claim and contact processes in light of the pandemic. Provisions introduced in March meant people who had lost work could quickly lodge an intention to claim Job Seeker Payment online and receive payment from the date of lodgment provided the full claim is lodged within a prescribed time. Our member centres’ casework reveals that many people have struggled to understand or follow through with the intent to claim provisions and now find themselves fighting to receive back-pay. Some clients delayed lodging their full JobSeeker Payment claim because they were waiting to find out whether they would receive JobKeeper. Others contacted Centrelink to lodge claims and were advised they’d be called back – however, the call never came, with the result that claimants missed out on crucial information and did not lodge their claim within the required period.
Older people have been particularly impacted by gaps in phone servicing, having previously relied on in-person contact for a range of reasons, including lower digital literacy. Rural and remote clients have been disproportionately impacted, with the ordinary difficulties of insufficient phone and internet reception made more significant by the reduction in face-to-face servicing and widespread closure of Centrelink agencies in rural towns.
People with disability or chronic health conditions, and carers, have faced particular difficulty. One of our member centres assisted a client on a bridging visa who had escaped domestic violence from her partner with her two children, one of whom has cerebral palsy and respiratory conditions that place the child at high risk of COVID-19. The client was ineligible for payments, but her children received Special Benefit, being citizens, and she was asked to attend Centrelink for a periodic review of the children’s eligibility. The client attempted to contact Centrelink by phone to explain that she did not have anyone to look after her children and could not bring them to the Centrelink office because of her child’s respiratory condition, and waited for a call back from the Special Benefit team. She did not receive the call before the review date and her children’s payments were reduced by over $200 as a result. The payments were only reinstated when our member centre contacted Centrelink and obtained an exemption for the client. This case highlights the need for servicing arrangements to better adapt to the realities of COVID-19, and clients’ particular vulnerabilities.
Mutual obligation requirements
Changes to mutual obligation requirements have been an important area of the social security response to the pandemic, with rapid shifts in policies regarding job search requirements, attending appointments with Job Service Providers, and accepting employment offers. Penalties for failing to comply with mutual obligations were lifted from 24 March 2020 but at the same time people were advised by Centrelink that they must comply with Job Plans. Mutual obligations have now been reintroduced, from 4 August, with penalties applying for refusal of job offers without a reasonable excuse but no penalties for failure to comply with mutual obligation requirements. This is intrinsically confusing.
The interplay of different requirements for ParentsNext and Community Development Program participants have also created significant confusion among recipients and providers. Our member centres have received calls from recipients who are unsure of what their obligations are, some having been given incorrect information by their provider. Clear and widespread communication about the changes will be crucial as mutual obligations continue to adapt to labour market conditions.
Review and appeal mechanisms
The need to process massive numbers of new claims is putting enormous pressure on Centrelink’s internal review system, with many clients facing long delays in having decisions reviewed by an Authorised Review Officer. The Administrative Appeals Tribunal is also being forced to adapt, given the need to limit face-to-face hearings. Remote hearings create particular difficulties in cases where recipients are submitting complex personal evidence and testimony, the full depth of which is lost over phone or video. This will potentially create accessibility issues for clients for whom phone hearings pose particular challenges, e.g., people from CALD communities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and people who live in rural and remote areas with poor reception.
The social security landscape emerging from COVID-19 is one marked by as many opportunities as challenges. The increase in the rate of JobSeeker and the extension of support to a wider range of people is fundamentally changing how Australians understand the role of social security, and view those who rely on the system for support. The labour market changes wrought by COVID-19 are making it increasingly clear that economic security for all requires a robust system of income support. This system must feature servicing arrangements that reach everyone, ensure clear communication about payment information, and maintain advocacy mechanisms that support accessible review and appeals systems. The changes brought about by the current crisis highlight issues affecting the capacity of our social security system to deliver economic justice – and the need to enable responsiveness, adaptation and reform.