Mutual Obligations and COVID-19 – Where Next?

adminSocial security rights review

Dr Peter Davidson, Principal Advisor, ACOSS

Recognising that Jobseeker payments are not fit for purpose at a time of rapidly rising unemployment (not that they were before COVID19!), the Government increased rates of payment, removed barriers to payments such as the Liquid Assets Test, and suspended activity requirements and penalties.

When the lockdowns are eased, we cannot return to $40 a day income support payments and harsh compliance systems. We must #RaisetheRateforgood.

The Government has flagged a three stage return to mutual obligations for people receiving Jobseeker and related payments. The Employment Minister indicated the timing of these phases would depend on the lockdowns, health advice, and the state of the labour market, so at this stage there is no timetable.

  • Initial stage: People on unemployment payments were encouraged to register with their employment service provider – no penalties for non-compliance
  • From 4 August: Gradual reintroduction of mutual obligations (Victorian residents excepted). These come in two parts (see details below):
    (1) People outside Victoria are required to attend appointments with employment service providers (unless they receive employment assistance on-line only) and apply for up to 4 jobs a month but there are no penalties for non-compliance with these requirements
    (2) People outside Victoria who refuse a suitable offer of paid employment without a reasonable excuse face cancellation of their payment and a four week wait before they can once again receive income support. Those decisions are made by Centrelink and people can appeal against them.
  • Later, subject to the virus and economic conditions: More substantial requirements to be introduced, under the Targeted Compliance Framework

Current compliance regime as at 4 August 2020

People who live in Victoria are not subject to any penalties or suspensions if they don’t meet mutual obligation requirements.

People who live in other states and territories may have their payment cancelled if they refuse suitable work without a reasonable excuse. This includes accepting a suitable job offer or starting a job they’ve accepted. A reasonable excuse means one that an ordinary member of the community would accept as reasonable in the circumstances, and recipients are required to give prior notice of the excuse when it is reasonable to do so. If a payment is cancelled for refusing suitable work, recipients will need to reapply and no payment will be payable to them for 4 weeks after the cancellation date.

No penalties apply to other mutual obligation requirements, including attending provider appointments, signing on to employment plans, and searching for employment – this means payments won’t be suspended or cancelled unless a recipient refuses suitable work.

The definition of suitable work under social security legislation is work that is paid according to the relevant industrial laws, does not involve health or safety risks, and does not contravene occupational health and safety laws. In all states and territories, employers have a legal duty to maintain a safe work environment, provide adequate and accessible facilities for the welfare of workers to carry out their work and monitor the health of workers and the conditions of the workplace for the purpose of preventing illness or injury.

If a person refuses an offer of paid work, Centrelink must ensure that the position complies with these requirements before imposing a payment cancellation, and that decision can be appealed to the Social Security Appeals Tribunal.

Why we can’t return to the old compliance system

ACOSS has argued for a long time that activity requirements like searching for 20 jobs a month are inappropriate for many people, and that the ‘Targeted Compliance Framework’ – the present system of monitoring whether people meet their activity requirements and penalising them if they don’t – is harsh.

As acknowledged by the Employment Services Expert Panel, the compliance system undermines personal agency and diverts the efforts of employment service providers and participants from effective action to secure employment towards compliance with rules.

Restoring that system would be especially harmful at a time when many more people are experiencing psychological hardship and financial stress, with people who are unemployed especially affected. Under these conditions, there is a greater risk of psychological distress, especially for young people who are new to the system.

One of the most harmful features of the Targeted Compliance Framework under these conditions is the automation of payment suspensions. Before the Targeted Compliance Framework was suspended in response to COVID19, if a participant in a program such as jobactive, DES or Parents Next did not attend a provider appointment, or report their compliance with activity requirements (either to the provider or on an app), their next payment was suspended automatically from midnight that evening.

They would receive a message the next day that to get the next payment restored, they must contact their employment service provider within two days and agree to ‘re-engage’ (to meet whatever the requirement is).

In many cases, people were not aware of the appointment or were unable to report on their activity requirements (for example, due to mobile phone or internet problems). In those cases, their payment was likely to be restored without delay, but the psychological damage was already done. We know from the Robodebt experience that unexpected messages from the government that threaten people’s income support payments or put them at risk of financial hardship can cause a great deal of distress.

Activity requirements and the compliance system must be redesigned before they are reinstated.

What should happen next

At this stage in the pandemic, ACOSS is calling for:

  • Continued suspension of requirements and penalties where lockdowns are in force.
  • Continue to encourage people to register with employment services and search for employment, but without penalties.
  • Clarify the meaning of ‘suitable jobs’ in a pandemic, to ensure that people are not required to seek employment that’s unsafe for them or their families
  • Before the compliance system is restored, the Government to work with advocates and service providers to redesign employment services so that they are safe for people, oriented towards career-guidance rather than applying for the first available job, and mindful of people’s psychical and mental health.
    People should be connected to other services they may need including mental health, advice on income support, referrals for emergency relief and assistance with health and family problems.
  • Any activity requirements should help people secure employment, and be adjusted to their circumstances (so no return to compulsory Work for the Dole and standardised requirements like searching for 20 jobs a month).
  • No restoration of automated payment suspensions – people should be given an opportunity to reconnect or meet other requirements before their payments are affected.