21 February 2023

Too many calls to Centrelink going unanswered

| Chris Johnson
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Rebecca Skinner

Services Australia CEO Rebecca Skinner says Centrelink is struggling with staffing. Photo: Services Australia.

Just how poorly Centrelink customers trying to get someone to pick up the phone are treated has been revealed in Senate Estimates, with numbers showing significantly more than half of incoming calls are going unanswered.

Between 1 July last year and 31 January this year, Centrelink received 25 million calls.

But only 8.35 million of those calls were answered, while 2.16 million calls were terminated by frustrated customers hanging up.

The employment services line specifically received 2.87 million incoming calls, with 844,964 being answered and 209,990 terminated by the customer.

Services Australia executives appearing before the hearings acknowledged that about two-thirds of calls to Centrelink end without customers speaking to an actual human.

For those who get their calls answered, their average wait time on hold is 18.04 minutes, up from about 14 minutes during the 2021-22 financial year.

The number of congestion messages – automated messages letting customers know just how busy operators are – has jumped from 1.2 million to a whopping 5.8 million.

All of these figures were revealed by Services Australia’s acting deputy CEO of customer service delivery Jarrod Howard, after chief executive Rebecca Skinner couldn’t answer specific questions put to her by Greens Senator Janet Rice.

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The Senator appeared increasingly frustrated at Ms Skinner’s inability to explain the agency’s customer service statistics.

“I am disappointed that I haven’t been able to get the full data,” Senator Rice said.

Ms Skinner did concede, however, that waiting times had blown out because of staff shortages in call centres.

“We are just struggling to fill those roles, and we are working very, very hard on it,” she said.

government building

Services Australia executives appearing before Senate Estimates hearings acknowledged that about two-thirds of calls to Centrelink end without customers speaking to an actual human. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Currently, Centrelink’s customer service delivery line is understaffed by 500 fewer employees than what the agency is funded for.

The estimates committee was told that even outsourced contractors were struggling to help fill roles for the agency.

“The agency has also struggled, similar to other large businesses, and we currently find ourselves in our service delivery space several hundred people short of where we could be,” Ms Skinner said.

“We have had a larger demand, I think partially coming out of changed economic circumstances.”

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She said a recruitment drive was currently underway to help meet the demand.

In January, about 800 new staff members were employed at Services Australia, with another 400 in February.

But optimum staffing levels at call centres have still not been reached.

The agency’s chief operating officer Russell Egan noted there was also a high turnover of staff at Services Australia.

“Dynamics are pretty tight at the moment and competition for talent is something that I think a lot of organisations are working through,” he said.

“Post pandemic, I think across most workplaces are seeing quite a high rate of churn in the labour market. So Services Australia is not unique.”

The ongoing cost-of-living crisis, with interest rates continually rising, has led to a surge in demand for Centrelink services, the hearings were told, which is also a contributing factor to extended call waiting times.

The highest wait times for Centrelink were the families and parenting line, and services for youth and students.

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So why did they sack all of those people a couple of months ago? Why didn’t they re-deploy them instead? Idiots.

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