Less than a week out from the launch of the biggest overhaul of unemployment services in years, Emma Williamson says she still has “no idea what’s going on”.
- More than 750,000 jobseekers are being placed into a controversial new unemployment system called Workforce Australia
- The federal government announced 11th-hour changes this week to improve the program
- But advocates remain concerned and say “problematic” aspects from the existing scheme have not been addressed
Ms Williamson lives with severe endometriosis that limits her mobility, to the point she can’t stand or sit for more than an hour.
The 28-year-old lives in Raywood, a 20-minute drive outside of Bendigo in regional Victoria, and has been receiving the JobSeeker payment since 2018.
In the past few weeks, she’s been frantically trying to figure out if she will be able to stay on the payment in future.
Next week, a new unemployment scheme called Workforce Australia will replace the much-maligned jobactive system, which required jobseekers to submit 20 applications a month to keep their Centrelink payments.
The Department of Education, Skills and Employment says the move will refresh a rigid system and give jobseekers greater choice in how they manage mutual obligations, the tasks people are required to continually complete to qualify for payments.
However, the transition has been shaky. Jobseekers such as Ms Williamson say the changes have been poorly communicated, causing fear and confusionand the changes themselves look to be no better than jobactive.
Ms Williamson and her family found out about the incoming system via the ABC, rather than any official government communication, and was left frustrated again when a Centrelink adviser as recently as this week could not tell her how she would be affected.
On Tuesday, new Employment Minister Tony Burke announced 11th-hour changes to the reforms, aimed at improving them.
However, jobseekers remain concerned.
How the changes will work in practice is still unclear to many, leaving them in the dark about what they will need to do to keep their payments.
Starting this Friday, July 1, jobactive will disappear and be replaced by Workforce Australia.
When that happens, more than 750,000 people will be placed into one of two Workforce Australia streams: an online portal for self-managing job searches, or into the management of a new job provider for face-to-face appointments.
Significantly, those who will be required to complete mutual obligations will also transition to a process where they will earn points for activities in return for income support.
Advocates have warned this process, called the Points Based Activation System (PBAS), could force some people living on sub-poverty line payments to undergo more mutual obligations to keep their money.
Ms Williamson recently obtained a three-month medical exemption from mutual obligations, but is unsure about how the new system will handle exemptions and worries that she will soon be subjected to the PBAS.
“I’m stuck in a position where I’m not disabled enough for disability [support] but too disabled to complete [mutual obligations]. Some of these activities are also hard [to do] from a rural area because we have to go in and do things physically.”
Some changes outlined by Mr Burke on Tuesday were to the PBAS, including increasing the points value attached to a number of activities.
In an interview with the ABC, Mr Burke acknowledged the shift to Workforce Australia was causing stress, given the scale of the changes.
He said that he was confident the changes would, ultimately, benefit jobseekers.
“If you keep doing what you’re doing, nothing changes, but you will now get credit where you didn’t used to,” he said.
“Instead of doing activities, which a lot of people quite rightly thought were pretty meaningless in terms of job applications … [now] getting a driver’s licence will make a difference for you. Now you’ll get credit for that. Getting a forklift licence, you’ll get credit for that.
‘Sheer confusion and panic’
Despite Labor’s 11th-hour tweaks, social services advocates are not fully on board.
The Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) said in a report earlier this week that many “problematic” features of jobactive remained embedded in Workforce Australia.
ACOSS acting chief executive Edwina MacDonald said her organisation welcomed some of the changes outlined by Mr Burke, but voiced concern about the continuation of the “punitive” work-for-the-dole program and automated payment suspensions.
“We can’t have computers automatically suspending people’s payments,” she said.
“It’s really important that … people are dealing with people when these things happen.”
The Australian Unemployed Workers Union is similarly unconvinced and has been fielding enquiries from jobseekers in “sheer confusion and panic”.
AUWU spokesperson Jeremy Poxon said he was anxious about his own transition to the PBAS and Labor’s changes “definitely didn’t go far enough”.
“Our position is you can’t really reform or fix a system that’s fundamentally designed to punish people for being unemployed and to force people into activities for the lowest social security payment in the OECD,” he said.
Ms Macdonald said the fears of jobseekers about the incoming system were “well-placed”.
“This is off the back of years and years of a punitive, dysfunctional system, and I think people rightly are concerned about what will be required of them,” she said.
The AUWU has called for a 90-day payment suspension amnesty so that nobody loses income while they get used to the new system during a cost-of-living crisis.
Those with jobactive demerits are now being given a “clean slate” for the start of Workforce Australia, which Mr Burke said would help give them a fresh start.
“It takes a few months before you hit direct penalties, so the mere fact of doing a clean slate effectively delivers [a 90-day pause] in a number of ways,” he said.
‘Chaos, trouble and trauma’
Anxiety around the transition has also spread to those who are part of a jobs scheme aiming to help people with disability find and stay in work.
Disability Employment Services (DES) works in roughly the same way as jobactive and has about 300,000 participants who also need to undergo mutual obligations.
The Department of Social Services — which runs DES — has confirmed that participants are set to stay in their current job plan for another year, rather than join Workforce Australia next week.
“The changes from jobactive to Workforce Australia will have no impact on DES services and participants’ obligations, other than a branding change to the current portal and the jobseeker app,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
The spokesperson said future considerations of the DES program, including the use of the PBAS, would be considered by the government prior to the conclusion of the existing contracts, which end in mid-2023.
Naomi Thompson has been covered by DES for the past few years, and receives a small amount of JobSeeker on top of the 10-12 hours she’s able to work each week.
She lives in Orange, in regional New South Wales, and with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The 31-year-old said she only found out on social media that she was not moving to Workforce Australia next week, and that the lack of official communication was “terrifying”.
She said she was grateful not to be a “guinea pig” for the start of Workforce Australia, but worried about potentially joining a scheme in 12 months’ time that “doesn’t look any better than the current system”.
“It doesn’t encourage people to take a chance on an opportunity for work,” she said.
“It doesn’t really add any more flexibility, but it does add a much tougher bar to reach, a much harder level to reach, and more hoops to jump through in order to get a payment.”