The thousands of people queueing up at Centrelink offices at the height of the economic impact of the coronavirus may be behind a concerning spike in Centrelink office wait times.
According to a report published in The Guardian on Monday, Australians waited 30 per cent longer on average in the last financial year than they did four years ago, despite considerably fewer people using these services due to the increasing use of online processing.
Pictures of thousands of people queueing up at Centrelink as unemployment started to bite at the height of the pandemic went viral, and it must be remembered that 2020 is a year unlike any other, but the report explains that even with the surge in joblessness Centrelink offices had fewer visitors than in 2015–16.
According to The Guardian’s analysis, 87 per cent of the country’s Centrelink offices had seen their waiting times increase over the past four years.
The report found people living in major cities waited about five minutes longer on average than they did four years ago, while those in regional centres spent about four minutes longer.
The increased wait times were despite figures that showed face-to-face contacts fell across 94 per cent of all Centrelink offices compared to four years ago.
In 2015–16, there were only 11 Centrelink offices where Australians could expect to wait longer than 15 minutes. Last financial year, 82 offices fell into that category.
Services Australia general manager defended Centrelink’s office wait times, explaining that “2020 had been a year like no other”.
He said that the average service centre wait time is less than 15 minutes and that the data source for measuring wait times had been improved in recent years, meaning that the figures were much more accurate than they were four years ago.
“The available data we have so far from this financial year (2020-21), shows that face-to-face (or service centre) wait times averaged less than five minutes from July to September,” Mr Jongen said. “This financial year, as at 31 October 2020, we are processing the majority of social security and welfare claims in less than a week (or six days) — nearly 20 days faster than last year; and calls are being answered almost 15 minutes faster than last year.
“More and more people are choosing to do their business online, including older Australians, who can lodge Age Pension claims electronically through myGov or the Centrelink app.
“We understand online options are not for everyone, and we are committed to improving people’s experience when dealing with us whether it’s by phone, face-to-face or digitally.
“In 2015, it was common for people to queue at service centres to update their address details, claim a Medicare payment or update their income or assets. Today, all major claims are now online, including 99 per cent of Medicare transactions, and we have simplified the claims process. This means the customers were more likely to see in our offices are those with more complex circumstances, such as losing their job, facing homelessness or fleeing domestic violence.”
Earlier this year, YourLifeChoices reported on the number of Centrelink offices that were being closed in an effort to cut costs.
Shadow minister for government Bill Shorten last month attacked the government for sweeping job cuts to Centrelink workers that will only exacerbate the problems relating to wait times.
“With record social security uptake, these workers are needed to staff the social safety net and other professional services to Australians doing it tough due to the pandemic and recession,” Mr Shorten said.
Did you visit a Centrelink office in person last financial year? How long did you have to wait before your needs were addressed? Do you think Centrelink services have been getting better or worse in recent years?
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