21 January 2022

Services Australia calls on surge capacity to meet rising demand for welfare

| Lottie Twyford
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Services Australia building

Services Australia is once again calling for volunteers to be redeployed from across the public service as COVID cases grow and the need for welfare payments puts increasing pressure on the agency. Photo: Supplied.

As COVID-19 case numbers grow across the country, Services Australia is once again calling for public service volunteers to help with the thousands of applications it is now receiving for welfare payments.

The demand for support has increased significantly throughout the past few weeks as hundreds of thousands of workers across the country are furloughed and unable to work after being identified as COVID-19 cases or as close contacts of one.

While there is no JobKeeper available anymore, the Federal Government has created a Pandemic Leave Disaster payment – a lump sum available to Australian residents or visa holders who are unable to work and earn an income because they have to self-isolate or quarantine.

It’s available for people who are identified as a case or a close contact of a positive case or for someone who has to care for a person with COVID-19.

This payment, however, is only available to people with no sick leave entitlements, including pandemic sick leave, personal leave, or leave to care for another person, and it can’t be claimed by people who receive any other income support payments.

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With the agency now under pressure to process applications for this and other federal government payments, it’s been reported that Services Australia will draw on the available public service surge reserve for up to eight weeks.

The public service’s surge reserve was created in the early days of the pandemic and later became a permanent part of the public service. It allows agencies to rapidly mobilise public service employees to deliver critical services to Australians during times of need.

It’s understood 500 volunteer nominations have already been received by Services Australia.

Services Australia came under pressure earlier this month to adopt a large-scale working from home policy. Employees were told individual circumstances would need to be assessed when it came to deciding if people could work from home or not.

Many roles in the agency require call centre set-ups, however the agency has said it is working on how some of these jobs can be done while an employee works from home.

Other government agencies have been told to remain flexible regarding working from home arrangements.

Before Christmas, it was expected that people would return to the office this year but the surge of Omicron cases around the country has changed that.

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Services Australia has drawn on its surge reserve repeatedly throughout the past two years as demand for financial support from the Federal Government grew across the country.

According to the 2020 State of the Service report, at one point during the pandemic Services Australia processed 1.3 million Jobseeker claims in just 55 days. Normally this number of claims would be processed in two-and-a-half years.

Thousands of jobs were also added to the Australian Public Service in the first half of 2020, although the Federal Government began to drop many of these by the end of the year.

According to the Australian Public Service Commission, the surge reserve is now made up of more than 2000 members.

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Unfortunately most APS departments are short staffed and overworked due to the government shooting itself in the foot with its unrelenting adherence to Average Staffing Level (ASL) caps over the last few years. Any department that releases staff to support Services Australia (Centrelink) will have to advertise for surge staff themselves.

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