Debt-recovery backlash leads to Centrelink staff strikes

Public backlash over the debt-recovery program has lead to strike action.

Centrelink office sign in Melbourne

The public backlash over the flawed debt-recovery program has lead to the launch of strike action by Centrelink staff and will cause delays for customers.

The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) advised the Department of Human Services on Friday that its members would be commencing two weeks of rolling industrial action, to begin on 13 February.

The debt-recovery program, which was launched last year, has seen 170,000 customers issued with notices of potential overpayments, identified by cross-referencing data from the Australian Tax Office and Centrelink. Customers have been asked to provide further information, including pay slips, sometimes dating back six years, within a limited timeframe. If they are not able to provide this information, a debt-recovery notice is issued. However, it has been found that some of the data matching has been flawed. In January this year, the system was amended to enable customers to request an internal review before debt recovery processes were commenced.

In a statement, Department of Human Services spokesman, Hank Jongen said, "We are asking customers to use the self-services options available through MyGov and the Centrelink, Medicare and Child Support mobile apps," he said.

"Of course, anyone who needs to speak to us can phone or visit, they just need to know that this may take longer due to the industrial action.

Assuring that customer payments would not be delayed, Mr Jongen also said, that the industrial action would not have an impact customer payments.

"We appreciate our customer's patience during this time and want to reassure them that we are working hard to minimise disruption to the services they need." 

While the action is in direct response to the backlash its members have faced in dealing with the debt-recovery program, the CPSU has been at loggerheads with the department for two years over pay and conditions.

Similar strike action was taken in December, with no customer payments affected. This time around, it is expected that delays will be experienced at Centrelink offices and via call centres, although it’s understood that staff dealing with robo-debt calls will not be striking.

CPSU national secretary Nadine Flood said the budget cuts and resulting 5000 job losses made it difficult for staff across Centrelink, Medicare and Child Support agencies to provide the necessary service to customers.

"Our members are doing this because they care about the quality of the services they provide, which is why workers dealing with sensitive clients such as those being dragged through the robo-debt crisis will not be taking industrial action," she said.

"There are 34,000 hardworking Medicare, Centrelink and Child Support staff who've gone more than three years without a pay rise as they've fought for a new enterprise agreement."

Furthermore, CPSU assistant secretary Michael Tull said last month that it was “perfect storm” which had lead to public servants struggling to deal with the public backlash.

The strikes will take place on 13, 15, 17, 20, 22 and 24 February.


Opinion: Time for those responsible to face the music

Sometimes in frustration it’s easy to forget that Centrelink staff are simply doing a job – applying rules and managing processes that have often been thrust upon them with little or no notice. This frustration should ultimately be focused on Minister for Human Services Alan Tudge, Minister for Social Services Christian Porter or indeed, the Prime Minster himself. But no, sadly these people very rarely ever come face-to-face with anyone who has queued for hours in a Centrelink office only to be told that their payments are being reduced or stopped due to some bureaucratic process.

While not everyone who visits a Centrelink office is down on their luck, the reality is that they are often stressed emotionally or financially and may struggle to understand the rules and legislation that is being quoted as reason for them not to receive payment.

Staff at Centrelink offices and those taking calls have to deal with some truly harrowing cases and, quite possibly, if it was up to them they would simply bend or wave the rules, but it’s not.

The reduction of staff in Centrelink offices and call centres only adds to the problem and coupled with the fact that they feel they are not being paid fairly for what they do, it’s little wonder that they have grabbed this moment of weakness in the system to make their point well and truly heard.

Ultimately, however, it’s the customer who is going to suffer. For those who can’t access the self-service options through MyGov and for whom visiting an office or speaking to someone on the phone is the only hope of having their issued resolved, these strikes won't help.

What do you think? Do you agree with Centrelink staff striking as a response to the debt-recovery program? Do you think they’re paid to do a job and should simply get on with it? Are you likely to be affected by strike action? 



    To make a comment, please register or login
    7th Feb 2017
    Whilst agreeing with most of the above there is still a fair degree of blame to attach to CL front-line staff .. at my local office there are staff who have been there since the '90s, sitting at desks with the bored & disdainful glare of those who has been passed over and now couldn't care less about the "customer" in front of them!
    7th Feb 2017
    All these government jobs are highly paid and underworked. I even include those public servants that are working under privatisation. In the real job world, most would not last one week.
    ray from Bondi
    7th Feb 2017
    Jackie, spoken like a true liberal disciple, you ARE so wrong, this applies to the politicians who are in reality public servants, though from their actions you would not think so. The front line staff over the years have been cut to the barest minum, no wonder they are stressed.
    7th Feb 2017
    I think you're living in the 80s Jackie. Having worked in both Pivate and Public sectors I can assure you that these days they work just as hard but there can be better pay and conditions in the Public Service. However, no one wants to work in Centrelink because along with the ATO it has been cut to the bone. Centrelink staff in my local office do a great job but there are lots of empty desks and long wait times. Some Clients with drug and alcohol issues are also less than desirable, but treated politely regardless. They have my support and hopefully the bosses will do something!
    7th Feb 2017
    Frontline Centrelink employees are paid 69,000 AUD. They are not overpaid or even highly paid. I rarely go into Centrelink but each time I have watched the verbal abuse and threats of aggression these people have to tolerate. Staffing levels have been significantly reduced although the number of security staff has increased. The police are in regular attendance. It must be a thankless job and the staff's demeanour shows their stress. Staff turnover is high and given the level of abuse I am not surprised. Interestingly, my GP's practice is next door to this Centrelink and they too have increased the number of security guards as has the local hospital. A recent study showed that almost every nurse and doctor working in A&E had been physically abused (punched) in the last 12 months. Public servants are fair game to the general public I am afraid.
    10th Feb 2017
    Precisely what I said in my two page resignation letter from the CPS, dweezy (one of the eight dwarves?) - a workforce divided by preferentially treated employees on one side, and those who will receive no largesse despite performing with excellence, will lead to a workforce with no motivation to achieve anything, and the CPS will stagnate as a result of Affirmative Action.

    Sounds pretty right to me....
    7th Feb 2017
    Although i do have sympathy for the staff at centrelink i can only worry about the ongoing hardships facing recipients waiting for payments. My adult son has spent most of 2016 appealing the knock back of short term disability payments while he is on a waiting list for a spinal operation despite letters from his specialist and having no medical clearances to be able to work. He has a school age daughter and toddler as well as rent and the usual bills of living. His wife had to leave the family to find work in the city so they could eat and pay bills. When it finally looked like there might be some light at the end of the tunnel the debt recovery debacle started and he has had no luck getting through to anyone in centrelink. He would dearly like to be well and able to work but is at the mercy of the queensland health system (another poorly run system) and centrelink.
    Now with tjis notice of strikes it looks like no light ahead
    7th Feb 2017
    Ella...The criteria for ordinary Australians to get the DSP these days you have to have evidence that you are 100% permanently incapacitated or proof that you are dying. Good luck many have died waiting to get it.
    Old Geezer
    7th Feb 2017
    Yes I had one fellow a few weeks ago who had been trying to get the DSP. He was under pension age but old enough to access his super. As he had quite a decent amount in super we ran some scenarios.

    Result was he was better by drawing a pension from his super as he was paying as much tax on his super than what he would get in DSP. OK he didn't get the heath care card but he could have an income straight away and forget about dealing with Centrelink. He has since found a better preforming super fund and now it earns enough in extra returns to cover his medical expenses too. So all he has to do is take a bit more out of super.
    7th Feb 2017
    Ella, others have said similar things but I'd like to add my bit. Write to your Federal Member outlining the problems and setting exactly how your son wants the problem solved. It;s important that the letter not be passed to a junior stafffer. Make sure that your son makes it clear that he wants a written response by a given deadline. If he hasn't heard back by the deadline he then moves up the 'ladder' and writes to the Federal Minister, again stating what he wants, when and how. It's a very last resort but nothing moves a politician more quickly than a detrimental TV segment. Having said this, I think media exposure is a really risky business and don't recommend it. Lastly keep copies of all documents, transcripts of phone calls and meetings etc. I always ask the person I am meeting with if I may record the meeting - doesn't go down well! Lastly always ensure that witnesses are present at every meeting and phone call and be very upfront about what is happening. Good luck.
    8th Feb 2017
    Old Geezer you are working with obviously higher paid workers. You keep saying they are better off using their super. Perhaps they would be better off if they had no debt or mortgage running and for a short time.

    The median wage indicates that over 50% of all workers will retire with only enough money in super to generate $6000 a year or to draw down the poverty level income for about 8 years and then have no money left. That is after at least 45 years of working life and super accumulation with few market corrections.

    You are an accountant so you work it out. I did and I was only taught double entry as a farm management tool.

    There is no way superannuation is of any benefit at all to around 70% of retirees. They would have been better off with that 9% going into either the mortgage or an independently owned index funds account with minimum fees and no insurance costs.

    Personally I can't think of anything worse than having to rely on government benefits and deal with made up figures and belief systems.
    Not a Bludger
    7th Feb 2017
    Here we go again.

    Another union boss claiming that CPSU members are "hardworking" - aka "we will mug the public until they disgorge all of my demands".

    Better if these overpaid, underworked and over-conditioned so-called civil servants took to serving the public with skill, commitment and civility.
    7th Feb 2017
    I agree. They choose to work in such a system because the pay and work conditions are cushy not because they care for the disadvantaged.
    ray from Bondi
    7th Feb 2017
    Liberal DNA at its best
    7th Feb 2017
    The Centrelink staff have my full support, they put up with a lot of abuse, some grizzles from the public are legitimate but most are from the people who have been caught out.Keep up the good work guys.
    7th Feb 2017
    I must admit to not having a great deal of sympathy for people striking because they have not had a pay rise for 3 years either. I haven't had one for well over 5 years (and even then it was less than CPI). And no I am not in a highly paid job or even in public service.
    7th Feb 2017
    Your obviously not in a union either KSS. Those 87% of workers not in unions have no hope of pay rises any time soon. A few public servants whose union calls strikes and carries on may get a tad of a rise perhaps.

    I wish the staff the best. It must be a dreadful job.
    7th Feb 2017
    No Rae I turn up and do the job I am paid to do. There are many dreadful jobs out there and yet people, like me, get on with them.
    8th Feb 2017
    Of course you do KSS, and so long as you do, those dreadful jobs with dreadful pay will continue. After all slavery lasted thousands of years before it became cheaper to pay a pittance to mug punters after convincing them they were "free" than to keep and clothe them yourself. There are far more masochists out there than sadists thank goodness.

    The biggest mistake though was to introduce that contract thing though as all the smart young people I know are starting their own businesses with all the lurks and perks that entails including choosing when and when not to save and how you do it and all those lovely tax deductions and concessions. Nothing dreadful about that.
    10th Feb 2017
    Oh - I would have thought that in this day and age any job would be acceptable for those who can get it.... many Centrelink employees are part-timers and casuals....

    It's not their fault that the work requirement is set low enough to cater to affirmative action. In the old office I used to go to, one of the staff was a lass who had broken her back in a horse accident - she was fine with that work and it was better for her to be there than sitting at home acting like a vegetable, which she is not in any way.

    They have to follow procedures, since the 'system' will not trust them to use initiative, and those procedures take up time, and on top of that staff have been reduced, so that makes waits slower.

    Blame the government, not the workers.
    Not Senile Yet!
    7th Feb 2017
    Not a are being conned Mate!
    Our Govt wants you to believe what you are saying...they are counting on that!
    At my local Centrelink office there are Half the Staff there used to be five years ago.....since then Unemployment has increased not decreased!
    Baby boomers have started to be retrenched as out the dea wood!
    People have lost their health thru no fault of their own!
    you are simply showing your ignorance...or are too busy working and paying the bills!
    That's fine.....but you need to sit in a Centrlink office for a day and see how overworked and stressed the staff are!
    As for the 3 yrs to get a wage rise....totally Absurd!
    But delaying negotiations is something All employers use as a tactic.....mimicking the Govt is ok!
    Take ur Blinkers Off! Every worker faces the same dilemma....scared of loosing their job!
    This government is using people with ur attitude to Dictate their policies that are simply grossly unfair!
    Do you need to be unemployed before you have an ounce of empathy for others doing it tough?
    Be careful sir....when that happens....changing your view might be too late...even for you!
    Been there...done that! Found I didn't have a Clue...just like you...simply too busy working to care!
    Now I am one of the so called Bludgers on Welfare...too old to get an interview letalone a job....and I am being told that it is ALL MY FAULT!
    ray from Bondi
    7th Feb 2017
    that is what people forget, for years we have been dragged down the garden path with the liberal DNA demanding smaller government, smaller government means less staff, not fewer politicians and their hanger ons, smaller government means nobody to answer phones, attend to you at the front desk, the only thing not shrinking is the politican trough.
    7th Feb 2017
    And the number of Prime Ministers. You think we might get yet another one joining the gravy train sometime soon. Perhaps Julie might give it a go.

    If there were any experienced Senior Public Servants left and the polls had enough sense to listen to them then all the stupid problems cropping up wouldn't be happening.

    Certainly Jongen should go as he has failed badly.
    7th Feb 2017
    Ella, if I was your son I would fill out a complaint form which can be found at the very bottom of the Human Services website under General Information, Complaints and Feedback. If he doesn't have a computer find someone who has. It still takes time but they tend to deal with written complaints a little quicker (it usually goes to a special team) and especially when it is on their own complaints form. Even I, as an ex-employee, needed to do this to get action on something I needed. Failing that write to Hank Jongen (the voice of everything in Centrelink) don't waffle on, clearly state the details. Persevere and never give up. Good luck.
    Old Geezer
    7th Feb 2017
    Find someone who works for a charity that can help him get it sorted with Centrelink.
    7th Feb 2017
    Yes OG I was going to suggest The Salvation Army advisors.
    7th Feb 2017
    Some CL front line staff need reminding in how to be polite to their customers. The majority do not want to have to deal with CL but have to due to losing their job, having a chronic illness, being told by their doctor they are not fit for work. CL have a different criteria to the everyday doctors on what they consider being fit. If the CL doctors are similar to the doctor a family member had to be assessed by 20 years ago. Said doctor spent under 5 minutes assessing family member then said there was nothing wrong with him. We appealed and provided evidence that the doctor failed in his duty of care to family member as when seeing a new patient it takes at least 15 minutes for the doctor to get a full medical history and talk to the patient re how their symptoms affect them. We won the appeal and the family member got his DSP.
    From what I have observed there is not enough training implemented when changes to CL Rules have to be applied. Typical bad business practice. Especially with this computer matching system which in some cases is seriously flawed. Plus Mr. Jongen and your staff not everyone has access to a computer and if they are supposed to be looking for work how can the spend hours waiting to talk to someone on the phone or in a CL office.
    7th Feb 2017
    As an ex federal public servant I can tell you the quickest way to get action from ANY federal government agency is to go to your local federal member of parliament and make a complaint. Their staff are required to provide you with assistance and a response, so they will contact the relevant government department and seek advice on your behalf. Now, if you are fortunate enough that your Federal member is in opposition to the current government, there is a chance that your local member will raise your issue with whomever in his party is the opposition minister/spokesperson for the applicable department. If your matter is serious (or embarrassing) enough to the current government the opposition minister may well ask a question in parliament at question time and refer to your matter specifically and this will set the cat among the pidgeons. Conversely if your local member is member of the political party who currently holds office, you should state when making your complaint to their office that if you dont hear back from them then you plan to talk to the relevant opposition spokesperson of the agency/department concerned as well as the ombudsman. Either way you should get some action....ministers hate getting compalaints raised in parliament and all federal government departments DO have a complaints section who knock themselves out to assist and respond to complaints about their department. You dont have to be Einstein to realise that the inquiries from Federal members and/or their office (referred to as "Ministerials") about complaints they have received take first priority in the Complaints section. Voila ! There is a good chance your voice will be heard.
    7th Feb 2017
    Those who are responsible for this so called debacle, are the people who have ripped off the system over the years and who have decried any wrongdoing when caught. Did I not see a news story recently which indicated that some of those who were crying crocodile tears about the way they have been treated, were in fact people who had knowingly or otherwise, rorted the system to their advantage.
    Sure the system may not seem to be right and may well not be right, but please blame those responsible for the systems introduction. These are the people who will endeavour to rip off or rort any system which gives to them money of goods and services for nothing.
    I wonder will the Government now go back and check as to whether these people were entitled to medibank benefits during the time they were receiving their ill gotten benefits. If not will they be required to refund any benefits paid. Hope so.
    7th Feb 2017
    “In January this year, the system was amended to enable customers to request an internal review before debt recovery processes were commenced.”

    Which is how it should have been all along.

    Fat Hank slimeshis way again:-

    “In a statement, Department of Human Services spokesman, Hank Jongen said, "We are asking customers to use the self-services options available through MyGov and the Centrelink, Medicare and Child Support mobile apps," he said.”

    IF those can be made to work.......

    “"Of course, anyone who needs to speak to us can phone or visit, they just need to know that this may take longer due to the industrial action.”

    So it's not lack of staff etc – it's industrial action that is causing the current and past horrendous delays? OK....

    7th Feb 2017
    I believe that any union has the right to withdraw labour if negotiations have stalled because of an employer's stance. There has been a three year dispute between the CPSU and government over pay and conditions. Union members rejected an offer in September 2015, again in February 2016 and the last time in November 2016. I have no idea what the offers were nor the reason why the CPSU members rejected those offers but I respect their decisions.

    I do not, however, accept that the reason for the strike should include the latest Centrelink attempt to recover overpayments. I believe that this is merely jumping on the bandwagon and has nothing to do with a legitimate claim for a wage increase.

    7th Feb 2017
    I'll bet that those who abuse Centrelink staff for doing their job as laid down by their bosses are the same idiots who blame the console operators when the petrol prices rise alarmingly. Please take your frustrations out on your local MP, not those who work hard for a living.
    8th Feb 2017
    Excellent comment.
    Old Geezer
    11th Feb 2017
    Some people are never pleased about anything these days.
    8th Feb 2017
    Rae please give not a bludger his pills before he does himself a injury.
    The Black Fox
    8th Feb 2017
    Centrelink front line staff members, along with many other front line public servants, are not well paid for the job they do. They have to implement the often unpopular policies of those who make the decisions and cop the public backlash (decisions made, on the whole, by senior and much better paid staff members who are required to apply the policies and budgets set by their political masters)

    In other words, constant staff cutbacks at the front line in Centrelink (and others such as the ATO) in combination with reduced spending on social support leads to fewer people to deal with an increasing number of complaints. Naturally the organisation finds it has to commit more time to dealing with problems and less to dealing with its core business – catch 22, no one is happy and the poor old front line staff member cops more abuse and questions of competency.

    A further issue is the rigid application of policy required of front line staff in Centrelink (and others such as the ATO). There is no room for the application of personal discretion in dealing with “the rules” – rules often set by those without any personal experience of hardship or the difficulties of dealing with constant abuse.

    It is no wonder that some (only some) front line staff appear to suffer from a siege mentality in dealing with “clients”. I would not do their job for quids. It saddens me that so many are happy to inflict their superior judgement on those whose only crime is that they are the messengers.

    If you want to blame, look towards those of us who inflict a philosophy on the public of blaming the victim. Blame those whose “silver spoon” life experiences lead them to believe that everyone could be as lucky as they are if they were to try hard enough. Blame those who think that you ought still to be able to win a 100 metre race when you start 50 metres behind everyone else.

    After this blame those who mix only with the “haves” yet make the rules for the “have nots”. Blame those in power whose own personal judgement allows them to dud the system (e.g. parliamentary rorts) yet make life intolerable for others. Most of all blame the greedy who are not prepared to sacrifice personal opportunity for societal good yet manage to convince the vulnerable, while ripping them off, that they “matter” and what they do is for them.

    Maybe then, after a lot of appropriate soul searching, those in positions of power might take on those who really threaten the fabric of our society, the self serving individuals and corporations who only think “me” and not “us”.
    9th Feb 2017
    Black fox
    Its a customer service job. Not rocket science
    Administrative jobs like that should be paid around $25- 30 k
    But in the public sector pay is as high as 60-70k for basic secretarial work
    no wonder theres nothing in the kitty for pensioners

    I worked in middle management and ended on a $50k salary in the private sector. An equivalent salary in public sector would be $120k

    And m,y pension is only $18k - where is the fair in that ?
    10th Feb 2017
    No pay rise for three years? Their salaries are frozen?

    How many pay rises have politicians had as well as increases to their perks in those three years?

    Both are public servants and must be government by the same rules and policies, not one for the masters and one for the slaves, and one for the little boy who sits down and raves ... (oops)...
    10th Feb 2017
    Of course Centrelink is using false terms to describe its 'debt recovery system'. The use of words is clearly indicative of this stretch away from reality:-

    Any potential conflict between annual income and benefits received is automatically flagged as a 'debt', rather than as an issue that needs to be properly resolved in a reasonable time frame. Like using the term 'domestic violence' in 'orders' from a court, rather than the correct term "Order to maintain the peace", is emotive and clearly a wrongful use of language, used deliberately so as to create a totally false impression of the issues involved.

    The Good Colonel, by then NOT using its own resources (it has not the staff) to resolve these issues by a full analysis of the information supplied to it by the SSR (Social security Recipient) and the ATO, which clearly shows the mandatory time periods involved - i.e. each fortnight (not a full year) - demands that the SSR resolve the issue within fourteen days of be whacked over the head.

    THEN the Good Colonel provides no genuine opportunity to do just that, by having endless waits on phones, endless waits in offices, and then insufficient trained staff to do some simple working out.

    The entire issue is falsely based.
    Old Geezer
    11th Feb 2017
    Wrong Centrelink and a review letter and ask you to explain further your claim. Nothing wrong with that at all in fact I see it as a good thing and good governance of taxpayer's money.

    Have you noticed that the majority of those interviewed by the media do or did owe money to Centrelink? They were just too lazy to get off their posteriors and sort it out when they got the review letter.

    It is a great idea using ATO annual income figures in that it is very usual for someone to have been on Newstart for six months and then earn $80,000 for the other six months of the year. In most cases that person would have too many assets to qualify for Newstart.

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