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?
If you enjoy our content, don’t keep it to yourself. Share our free eNews with your friends and encourage them to sign up.