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The Unfair Reasons Centrelink Clients Are Being Cut Off Welfare Payments

Attending doctor's appointments, going to work or being in class are just some of the things Centrelink clients say they are being penalised for.

"I told them I was sick in bed. What do you want me to do?" George*, a young Melbourne man on the Newstart allowance, told 10 daily of an interaction with a Centrelink employee.

"They made me attend my activity when I was sick, they wouldn't accept my excuse. I showed up there sick and the provider instantly realised what was going on, and they let me go home."

The federal Jobactive has been called "punitive", with many Centrelink recipients saying they're being punished or having payments stopped for "unfair" reasons.

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Under the federal government's new Jobactive scheme, young people on the Newstart or Youth Allowance payments through Centrelink are required to fulfil a range of 'mutual obligations' to receive funds. These can include work for the dole programs, attending job seeker appointments, classes on writing resumes and applying for jobs, or attending study or training programs.

People may receive demerit points if they fail to attend scheduled appointments or work activities.

Centrelink's Jobactive program has been criticised by those on it. Image: Getty

"Your payments will stop if you don’t meet your mutual obligation requirements. You’ll also get a demerit each time you miss a requirement without a valid reason," Services Australia said on its website.

"You may move to the penalty zone if you get five demerits in six months. If you miss any requirements when you’re in the penalty zone, you may get a financial penalty. This penalty may include having your payment cancelled."

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Jobactive participants are allowed to lodge a "reasonable excuse" for not attending an appointment. In a guide released February 10, the Department of Social Services says "the excuse must be one that an ordinary member of the community would accept as reasonable", citing personal sickness, illness of a close family member, phone difficulties, or attending paid work or a job interview.

But some Centrelink recipients told 10 daily their payments are often suspended, even when they provide legitimate excuses ahead of time.

Centrelink clients claim they've had payments suspended for attending doctor's appointments. Image: Getty

"I got a demerit point for attending a doctor's appointment," George told 10 daily.

"I provided a doctor's certificate, and contacted my provider before. I recently got my payment suspended for missing an appointment because I was at a paid work shift."

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A demerit point does not automatically equal a payment suspension, and the payments can be quickly reactivated, said Jeremy Poxon, spokesman for the Australian Unemployed Workers Union -- an advocacy body for those on welfare or unemployed. However, he said it was unfair the onus was on jobseekers to correct mistakes made by providers, or to appeal unfair suspensions.

He slammed the Jobactive system as "punitive and unfair".

"They're punishing people for no reason," Poxon told 10 daily.

Poxon said he himself received a payment suspension last week, when he had to attend a doctor's appointment at the same time as a scheduled jobseeker meeting. Poxon said he spent an hour on the phone to his provider on the day before the planned meeting, to advise he would be unable to attend, and despite the agency accepting his excuse, he still had his payment suspended.

"We'd love to know how is this happening with such regularity," Poxon said.

"Is the system full of systemic errors? Maybe the provider is making errors with details, forgetting to put things into the system?"

"It's a real head scratcher. It's hellish bureaucratic chaos."

He claimed people received demerits or suspensions for missing appointments due to being called in to work on short notice, having study commitments, or urgent medical appointments.

Other jobseekers shared similar stories with 10 daily.

George said his suspensions left him "extremely anxious" about paying bills. He said his payment is currently suspended because his job provider wouldn't believe that he missed an appointment due to having to attend paid employment instead.

Payments are being stopped or delayed due to "punitive" actions, unemployment advocates claim. Image: Getty

Sarah*, in a work for the dole program at a Melbourne business, said the office manager often forgets to mark participants' names off a list, meaning they are marked as absent.

"They don't tick you off, your payments get suspended. This person is just too lazy to put the details in. It's horrendous," she told 10 daily.

Sam* said he has had situations where a job provider scheduled an appointment for a Wednesday, but then later moved it to Friday of the same week. He attended on Friday as requested, but still received a demerit point -- for missing the Wednesday meeting.

Sam thinks someone along the line forgot to change his appointment time in the computer system.

"It's annoying," he told 10 daily.

Employment minister Michaelia Cash said Jobactive was "achieving outstanding results". Image: AAP

In a statement, a spokesman for Minister for Employment, Michaelia Cash, praised the Jobactive program.

"Jobactive is achieving outstanding results, with providers achieving over 1.5 million job placements since July 2015," they said.

"The Morrison Government is committed to getting more people off welfare and into work. Jobseekers receiving taxpayer assistance need to ensure they are meeting their mutual obligations in looking for employment."

The spokesman said only "a fraction of jobseekers" incurred a financial penalty under the system. However, statistics released by the department in July 2019 said nearly 80 percent of Jobactive participants had at least one payment suspension in the 2018-19 financial year.

Subsequent reporting found one-fifth of those were later found to have had a reasonable excuse after all.

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Nearly 1.3 million payment suspensions were enacted between July and December 2019, but many were later reactivated -- and backpay given for the suspension period -- once the jobseeker re-engaged with the program. Payments can be reinstated within 24 hours.

"There's a huge number, hundreds of thousands of people, getting cut off when they have valid excuses," Poxon said.

"They're putting ever more onerous demands on people. So many are being punished unfairly."

* - names have been changed to preserve anonymity.