While tens of thousands of Australians are signing up for unemployment benefits, some work-for-the-dole participants are faced with the choice of protecting their health or their income.
- The Work for the Dole scheme has been suspended until March 31 due to Centrelink congestion
- Failing to meet the scheme’s requirements had been resulting in the automatic cancellation of payments
- Advocates say participants are confused about their obligations
One of them is “Terry”, a 45-year-old participant in the Jobactive work-for-the-dole program in Adelaide, who wished to remain anonymous out of concern his payments would be cut off for speaking out.
Despite his concerns about the risk of coronavirus, he is still being required to work 25 hours per week to receive his Jobseeker payment.
“On Monday they told me ‘I can tick you off as having a good excuse, but you are required to attend Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday’,” he said.
“You can get a medical exemption, but I’m not sick. I’m trying not to get sick.”
Like many work-for-the-dole participants, Terry works at a charity — in his case an op shop.
“You can’t socially distance very well in there,” he said.
“We need to look busy, so we’re touching things all day.”
Stay up-to-date on the coronavirus outbreak
Terry said he did not want to leave home or take public transport because he was worried about coronavirus, but he felt he had to go.
“I’m in a very financially precarious position. I will attend. And if I catch it, I catch it. I have no choice if the risk is having my income cut off.”
Last Friday, the Department of Employment and Skills announced work for the dole and other activities delivered in group settings that could not be delivered online would be suspended until further notice.
But the department also stated the suspension did not cover all obligations under work for the dole.
“Jobseekers will still be required to attend any scheduled job interviews and take up offers of suitable work, with existing compliance penalties applied where this does not occur,” it said.
Responding to the ABC on Tuesday, Employment Minister Michaelia Cash said job service providers had been directed to review all jobseeker requirements in light of COVID-19 restrictions.
“If a jobseeker has been told to attend a work-for-the-dole activity in person, this is not the case and my department is reiterating this direction with all service providers,” Senator Cash said in a statement.
The statement said the final decision about whether a work-for-the-dole activity was safe was up to the Jobactive provider, not Centrelink itself.
“As per current arrangements, providers are required to consider whether an activity is appropriate and safe for a jobseeker,” it said.
Leanne Ho from Economic Justice Australia said people were confused about their obligations.
“Many people are worried about the health impacts of going to activities or job interviews or going to work when they’re also getting messages that they’re meant to be social distancing and staying home,” she said.
She said it appeared some people on work for the dole were being forced to ignore the Government’s biosecurity advice.
“People are terrified of not having anything to live on, so it’s a really troubling situation where people feel compelled to go out and put their health at risk in order to stop the cancellation of their payment.”
Terry’s job provider has been contacted for comment.
Figures released last year revealed more than 40 per cent of people on Newstart were sick or living with a disability.
Many who receive the Centrelink payment may be especially vulnerable to coronavirus because of medical conditions.
Remote community work scheme suspended
The lack of a blanket suspension for work-for-the-dole obligations stands in contrast to the Community Development Program (CDP), a similar scheme which operates in remote and Indigenous communities.
Your questions on coronavirus answered:
All of its face-to-face group activities have been suspended and there is no obligation or penalty for not attending programs.
“We think that exactly the same health and biosecurity issues apply to all the people who are currently in the Jobactive system,” Ms Ho said.
“There’s no reason we should have one set of rules for the CDP program and not extend that suspension to everyone on Jobactive.”
Economic Justice Australia is also calling for all current suspension orders for payments to be lifted.
“Because of the targeted compliance framework, the decision to suspend payments is actually quite automated,” Ms Ho said.
If appointments or activities are recorded as missed under work for the dole, payments can be automatically stopped by the program’s computer system.
To contest the order, participants usually have to get in contact with someone at Centrelink.
“It takes a manual action … either calling your supervisor or getting in touch with Centrelink in order for that suspension to be lifted,” Ms Ho said.
“People simply can’t get through right now.”
What the experts are saying about coronavirus: