Job agencies have suspended welfare payments 74,000 times since mutual obligations returned last month, with 9,100 people experiencing homelessness among those temporarily cut off from income support.
Department of Employment officials on Thursday night revealed plans to give jobseekers a new “48-hour window” before their payments were put on hold, as they conceded the latest figures under the current system were “large”.
With an influx of new jobseekers, including some dealing with the system for the first time, figures provided to Senate estimates showed a total of 74,434 payment suspensions recorded between 28 September and 18 October.
About 7% of all jobseekers have experienced a payment suspension in those three weeks.
This included 9,100 people experiencing homelessness, 13,169 people with disabilities, 12,137 Indigenous jobseekers and 12,401 ex-offenders. Some welfare recipients will be included in several categories.
Payment suspensions – which apply when jobseekers fail to attend scheduled job agency meetings or other complete activities – can result in the delay of a person’s welfare payments.
Challenged over the figures by the Greens senator Rachel Siewert, the employment minister, Michaelia Cash, said jobseekers could immediately call their provider and “have the situation rectified”.
She did not agree that the system was unfair.
“We suspended mutual obligations for a very long period of time,” Cash added. “They are still suspended in Victoria.”
Siewert said she was “at a loss to understand” how “suspending a homeless person’s payment in the midst of a recession will help them find work”.
“These are cohorts that the government should be providing additional support for, not punishing them for being on income support,” she said.
Siewert said payment suspensions were “incredibly stressful”, especially for people who were living below the poverty line.
“For those who say it may have only been for a couple of days, they miss the point,” he said.
“It is incredibly stressful to be trying to navigate this system to be dealing with Centrelink and in some cases intimidating employment providers.”
The Australian Unemployed Workers Union said on Twitter that the figures were “heartbreaking”.
This is heartbreaking and it's exactly what we warned @SenatorCash would happen. It's why we implored her to allow more time for communication about the rules changes, and to provider clear information. We are devastated. https://t.co/FczNWutneA
— AUWU (@AusUnemployment) October 29, 2020
Janine Pitt, a Department of Employment first assistant secretary, also revealed a forthcoming change to the system that will reduce the number of payment suspensions handed out.
Under the current system, a person will have their payment automatically put on hold when their job agency records that they have missed an appointment or activity.
The person is required to “re-engage” with their provider through a catch-up meeting before their payment is restored.
Pitt said on Thursday night that jobseekers would soon have a “48-hour window” or grace period to contact their agency before their payments were suspended.
“Say somebody had an appointment at 10am [and] they didn’t turn up, by 11am usually the consultant has put a note in the system that the person hasn’t attended,” Pitt said.
“That will generate an SMS message to the jobseeker to advise them that they had an appointment that they hadn’t met. They need to contact their provider. If they don’t contact their provider within two days, then their payment will be put on hold.”
Previously, the person’s payment would have been suspended immediately.
The change will come into effect from December.
Last year, Guardian Australia revealed more than 120,000 people who had their payments suspended in 2018-19 were later found to have a valid excuse for missing their appointment or activity.