450 Centrelink call centre workers stood down after infection scare

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Centrelink call centre staff have been sent into isolation without pay due to a growing outbreak possibly triggered by a private operator ignoring social distancing in the workplace.

The six-person outbreak had potential to infect a significant number of staff.

As a result, the entire workforce at the Mill Park call centre in Melbourne’s north east has been stood down after the Health Department assessed hundreds of staff as close contacts and at risk of infection.

Centrelink call centres and offices have been busy during the pandemic-induced recession, and this potential outbreak may have the potential to incur significant interruptions and a return to longer than usual wait times.

With extended queues at Centrelink offices and repeated crashes of the myGov website, using the phone is often the only recourse for those needing information on the Age Pension, JobSeeker and other payments.

For some older Australians asked to stay inside, and with limited internet access or digital savvy, the phone is their only form of contact with Centrelink.

According to customer experience analyst CXCentral, the average Centrelink call wait time prior to COVID-19 was 1 hour 5 minutes, although the department claimed an average wait time of 15 minutes. Since COVID-19, CXCentral claims Centrelink wait times often exceed three hours.

“The Centrelink call centre has been in the news on many occasions and despite the millions of dollars being invested, it seems like things haven’t improved sufficiently,” stated CXCentral.

“Any time the data reveals that in 2018, 36 million calls were met with a busy signal and over 4 million callers who managed to still get through hung up, would suggest there are some significant issues.”

It seems though the Serco arrangement has more recently at least allowed more callers through. An InDaily report claimed in the 11 months to the end of May 2019 more than 26.7 million callers to Centrelink got a busy signal when they rang, with 1.1 million unanswered calls in May alone.

Private multinational contractor Serco took over the department’s call centre work last October in a three-year pilot program that is costing the government $51.7 million.

This outbreak has potential to bring the pilot down.

The Australian Services Union (ASU) and a worker said that since March, Serco had been warned about inadequate physical distancing and lax hygiene protocols leading to an unsafe work environment.

Hundreds of workers at the call centre office hot-desk and share meal rooms.

Emails seen by The Age revealed that in March and April the working environment “was ripe for an outbreak unless the company instituted better hygiene policies, including regular cleaning of desks and increasing the distance between workers”.

Serco said the policies of the federal health and state authorities had been followed and that it had implemented a range of measures to make the workplace more COVID-compliant.

However, the ASU was considering legal action claiming its demands were largely ignored.

“Under circumstances where the company has caused the problem in the first place, forcing workers to wear the consequences instead of the company absorbing the costs is morally bankrupt,” said Matt Norrey, secretary of the ASU’s Victorian private sector branch.

“When [the outbreak] was found out and the site was shut down by the Victorian authorities, Serco [threw] its workers to the wolves.”

Serco employs around 4500 workers in Victorian call centres for Centrelink, the Australian Tax Office, the National Disability Insurance Authority and the Police Assistance Line.

Along with answering Centrelink calls, Serco staff, somewhat ironically, also answer calls from people reporting workplaces flouting social distancing requirements.

Serco call centres in Box Hill and Dandenong have all been sites with confirmed cases.

Read the Services Australia response.

Have you experienced longer than usual wait times in the past week?

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca is a voracious reader who loves words. You'll often find him spending time in galleries, writing, designing, painting, drawing, or photographing and documenting street art. He has a publishing and graphic design background and loves movies and music, but then, who doesn’t?



Total Comments: 19
  1. 0

    HOLEY MOLEY. They are assesing over 400 people? I think 723 cases here in melbourne today, and possibly more high figures from this office in the next day or so. Whne is this going to end. I think this will not end until there is a vaccine. I am older, don’t need to work and have enough money is super etc. feel so sorry for the younger people losing thier jobs etc. and people getting sick etc.

  2. 0

    I re applied for the age pension on April 1st after losing a substantial sum from my super, still waiting.
    Ok I know they are under the pump, but it is not good enough, the whole lot should be dismantled and modernised. It’s all about giving you the smallest $$ would save millions on admin if they just gave the pension to all those over 65.

  3. 0

    Is the same with Medicare. I tried to ring a contact number for Medicare, and message said they were unable to take any calls. Goodbye. Most messages say ‘go to your Mygov page’. The reason I am trying to ring is because the silly page does not go any where near answering my query. Not all queries follow their written response guidelines. Cannot contact my email. Only way to contact them was to send a written snail-mail letter by post. Disgraceful.

  4. 0

    More reason that the current pension system is broken & should be replaced with a universal pension for all over 65 years of age. Couples are paid the same rate as singles for simplicity.
    Any earnings from super, working, shares etc etc are taxed like everyone else.
    We wouldn’t have this situation if a universal pension was in place. Same as New Zealand & most other OECD countries.
    The only part of the KISS method that the government recognises is the last S which is Stupid.

    • 0

      And surely this will happen. Also frees up resources to help the many younger unemployed rather than wasting time and resources on people who realistically probably won’t work again.

  5. 0

    Centrelink is under the pump at the moment.The guy in charge Hank Jongen talking on a radio station,need help go on the GOV website .The system is simply not working correctly.Frustrating say the least.About time the website get updated with MODERN EQUIPMENT.To much talk,pasing the buck.No wonder people become suicidel and depressed.Many people need help and unable to find it.myself age pensioner and ok,but see the problems.Very sad.

  6. 0

    The government of this country runs on a system if you need help we will make it as hard as possible to get it AND people voted them back in well if you didn’t like myself nothing they do surprises me except not having a sitting government welcome to Dictatorship by stealth

  7. 0

    Bloody disgusting t say the very least. Another example of the failure of privatising when government is paying private contractors to do the job that should be done by public servants. I daresay that the payments to Srco would exceed the costs of paying public servants to do the same job.

  8. 0

    I’ve visited a Centrelink centre three times in the past ten days and I’ve never got through quicker. No queues and fast reponse.

    • 0

      Fantastic,lucky you.Hope yo satisfied with outcome.

    • 0

      Compared to Centrelink staff, I think Serco workers are paid a whole lot less and have far worse working conditions which involves insecure shift work. But the Serco Company execs are as usual, taking the cream off the top at the expense of the workers, like any private corporation will do.

      I think COVID has shown us all what’s wrong with our society and economy – too many people are forced to work in insecure jobs with shitty conditions (like no sick leave or holiday pay), if they are to ever have a chance of buying their first home. The cost is to their family lives and their mental health.

      And when they finally get a decent job earning over $50,000 pa, they have the government put their hand out for the HECS debt to be paid off first. That’s after they’ve had a slab of compulsory Superannuation taken out of their take-home pay. No wonder they can never save a deposit for their first mortgage. We older generations have no idea.

    • 0

      This out-sourcing of services is what is ruining our workplaces. And our society in the long run. It’s like buying Chinese goods – yes, they’re cheaper but the worker who produced it has had to put up with awful conditions and pay.

      Who really wins from this approach? Bosses who sit on their arses. Certainly not the workers, whose only benefit is that at least they have a (crappy) job of sorts.

  9. 0

    What waiting times are these?

    I had reason to call CentreLink a number of times on both Friday and Monday, and in every case I needed to talk to an actual person.

    The longest wait time of all the calls was about 2 minutes.
    And 2 of the calls on Monday were connected immediately with no waiting at all.

    • 0

      You better buy lotto ticket

    • 0

      Well Happy, I might just do that!!!!!!

      Those calls I spoke of above were related to my application for a part OAP.

      The application was submitted late on the night of 27th July, and after tidying up a coupIe of loose ends today by phone (they called me), I was informed that it has been approved. (Only 7 business days, when everyone reckons 6 to 13 weeks)

      In my whole life, I really don’t think I’ve ever had better service from any organization whether big, small, public or private.
      Thanks muchly CentreLink.



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