What’s behind the longer wait times for Centrelink services?

Australians are facing longer wait times when calling Centrelink, with average wait times for social security and welfare calls increasing from 14 minutes and 14 seconds in the previous financial year to 20 minutes and 22 seconds this year.

These figures highlight the struggles faced by Centrelink’s workforce in keeping up with the high demand for services.

One of the reasons for the longer wait times is the lower staffing levels and decreased budget in the post-pandemic era.

Millions of Australians also still prefer to call Centrelink instead of using digital means, further contributing to the increased wait times.

Data tabled in estimates showed the average waiting time between July 2022 and 31 January 2023 across all Centrelink phone lines was 18.04 minutes, up from 14.14 minutes in 2021-22 and 4.06 minutes in 2020-21, when agency staff numbers were boosted for the pandemic.

Older Australians waited on average 28:11 between July and March compared to 21:30 the previous year.

Also read: Age Pension payment rates: 20 March 2023 to 19 September 2023

Parents and families waited longest for assistance, with an average of 31 minutes and 24 seconds, compared to 24 minutes and 45 seconds the previous year.

People seeking assistance with disabilities, sickness, and carers also experienced increased wait times, from 20 minutes and 59 seconds in the previous financial year to 28 minutes and 23 seconds in the nine months between July 2022 and May 2023.

While wait times for some other Services Australia programs, such as Medicare and Child Support, have also increased, wait times for health provider queries have decreased on average.

There were 25 million calls handled up to 31 January 2023. Of those, 8.3 million were answered, 2.1 million were terminated by the customer and callers received a ‘congestion message’ on 5.8 million occasions.

In comparison, there were 5.6 million congestion messages across the entire 2021-22 financial year.

Services Australia chief executive Rebecca Skinner told Senate estimates that the current call times were “less than … optimal”. She claimed the agency was dealing with similar labour shortages affecting many other large businesses around the country.

Ms Skinner said Centrelink was operating with 500 fewer customer service employees than average.

Services Australia is currently recruiting and has hired several new staff. The agency brought in 800 new staff members in January, with another 400 in February. But Ms Skinner says there is a performance “lag” due to the time it takes to train new employees.

While call wait times may have increased for some, it should still be noted that Services Australia has around 10 million customer contacts every week in service centres, online and by telephone.

“Most of our contacts occur online, with about 90 per cent arriving via digital channels and around 10 per cent in service centres or over the phone,” a Services Australia spokesperson told YourLifeChoices.

“This time of year is also typically very busy, and we’re also managing increased demand due to a range of policy changes.

Most customers interact with Services Australia using the MyGov app, online services, phone self-service or our other mobile apps. But many older Australians still shy away from these options.

“We also know older Australians want options when it comes to doing their business with us, and that’s why we’re investing in digital and self-service phone options, as well as face-to-face support such as our Aged Care Specialist Officers,” the spokesperson added.

“We now also have digital coaches who can provide in-person support to increase confidence using our online services.”

This report comes after Services Australia decided not to renew its contract with welfare agency Serco, impacting 600 jobs. When in government in 2017, the Coalition outsourced much of Centrelink’s customer service capabilities to the offshore-owned Serco at an estimated cost of more than $51 million. This contract came into affect after 1200 Australians were ‘released’ from DHS jobs.

The Labor government has stated that staffing levels are beginning to normalise and that emergency response capabilities have been bolstered to provide the best possible support for customers.

The government says it will address the staffing shortfall and that the Albanese government was “committed to strengthening the agency, so it can deliver Australia’s safety net for those who need it”.

The cost of living crisis makes it crucial for Australians to have access to government services and payments in a more timely manner.

Right now, Services Australia departments are in their tax peak season, and are carefully balancing call wait times with staff effort on processing claims.

Older Australians experiencing longer than usual wait times can find assistance here:

Correction: The Serco offshore contract changed from $51 billion to $51 million.

Also read: Centrelink not to blame for services ‘crash’

How do you find your interactions with Centrelink staff? Why not share your experiences with our members? And if you have a Centrelink question, please send it to [email protected] and we’ll do our best to answer it, or find someone who can.


  1. The wait is long on the phone, sometimes calling early in the morning helps, but you just have to be patient, though I realise many can’t wait on the phone for ages, because of work or other commitments.

  2. Recently a Centrelink data operator accidently cancelled my wife’s health card.
    Chemist picked it up.
    Medicare call took me a hour to be advised it’s Centrelink but they were nice.
    Started to ring Centrelink at 11.00,numerous answers saying ring back or go to web.after noon I got to be on wait.eventually Rosemary answered. What a wonderful person.
    She was a terrier.
    Would not give up till she had fixed the problem.
    She apologised and fixed the problem.
    She had to reapply for the card from her end ,in conjunction with the technical people.
    Thankyou Rosemary from Perth


    It was

  3. Trying to get through by phone from overseas is ‘Mission Impossible’ – with most calls dropping out after the first hour on hold. And the “freecall” number is a good idea but only in theory because it has to be made over a landline, which in most SE Asian countries is either a business or central post office – neither of which are accessible to most expat retirees unless they live in or are prepared to travel to a major city!

  4. Wish I could get these wait times. I recently I had to advise that I was ceasing my part time work as to not to have to report every fortnight for my age pension requirement. It took me 1 hour 38 minutes and 17 seconds on the phone to deliver a message that required me to talk with someone for less than 5 minutes. Absolutely disgraceful ,now I refuse to phone and will send communications by snail mail. If they wont let me do that i will cease my post retirement employment. Thanks Centrelink…not

  5. I am absolutely sick and tired of the recorded message you hear when you ring ANY government department – or in fact, any business. To hear the message – ‘ due to covid restrictions, we are experiencing high demand for our service’. Or similar.
    I received an SMS message saying someone from Services Australia would be contacting me, and to ensure I answered the phone (that alone I object to as the number is not disclosed, and due to so many spammers I don’t answer unknown calls, and they refuse to leave a message). I waited – had my phone in my hand for 2 whole days (even taking it to the loo! – they never phoned. A few days later, I noticed I had not received my Aged Pension, so went to my local office to ask why. The reason? – because they had not been able to contact me! That’s what they said! TWO DAYS!! It only took them 2 days to stop my pension, when THEY didn’t phone me! They soon approved the payment, but I was stunned at how quick they cancelled my pension without any confirmation or contact.

    I am so lucky I live close to a Centrelink office, but even then dread going into the office. I rode my bike down – they would not let me in with me holding onto my expensive helmet! (I wasn’t wearing it). Then have to wait an hour or 2. Phoning is a complete disaster – I too have faced the ‘call back later’. And it does NOT matter what time you phone. You can never reach them.
    I am having the same problem with trying to contact Medibank. Appalling lack of phone assistance, and when you do get someone they cannot help you. Probably because they are working from home, and haven’t anyone else to ask. I have had to lodge a written complaint simply to get my questions answered.

  6. Not Just getting in touch via the phone either. SEVERAL months ago, applied for a carers pension (submitted 6 May), advised it would be settled by 24 June. Still waiting, can’t get through by phone (like evryone else) and still waiting. It is obvious that Centerlink is totally understaffed!!

  7. 20. Mins wait time. I don’t think so. My husband was on the phone one hour and 55 minutes before it was answered. You have to go into. Enter link to make an appointment- not with the rude person at the reception- but wait 15 minutes to talk to someone to make an appointment. How stupid is that. He could have dealt with the my problem in that time. Note that you cannot make an appointment on line. This doesn’t work yet. It would be good if they took that option off the website until it works.
    Services Australia? I think they’ve got the wrong name.

  8. A universal pension for ALL people over 18 is the answer, regardless of income and wealth. Does away with Centrelink totally. Yes, it will be expensive. But then tax is paid on all the income going through one’s bank account. This way everyone pays their correct amount of tax from first time worker’s to CEO’s and the ultra rich. I saw this discussed recently and as a retired Tax Agent it is a good proposal. But, won’t see it in my lifetime!

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