To go to work, or to attend an appointment to “find” work – that’s the question one worker is asking himself under the federal government’s new Workforce Australia employment services system.
The 62-year-old is the latest jobseeker in the new $1.3bn-a-year Workforce Australia program to complain about the baffling mutual obligations he must fulfil.
Despite informing his job agency that he is unable to attend appointments because he is working full-time hours for a labour hire firm 10am to 6pm each weekday, David said he was continually being hassled by his provider, atWork Australia.
This was in the form of text messages telling him he had face-to-face appointments to attend, as well as voice-mail messages left while he was working asking him to contact the organisation.
“I have a job that they’re supposed to be finding me,” David said. “But if I go and see them, I’m not working.”
Under the Workforce Australia contracts, job agencies get a $600 “engagement payment” when a jobseeker like David is referred to them from the old Jobactive system.
The Department of Employment and Workplace Relations confirmed this fee is only paid to the provider if and when the provider has “recorded attendance at the initial interview” and the jobseeker has signed an approved job plan.
A department spokesperson said people should not be asked to give up work due to their mutual obligations.
While the department has insisted providers can be “flexible” with jobseekers under Workforce Australia, David’s situation follows several other cases where this has not been the case.
Guardian Australia reported last week how one 63-year-old woman was directed to travel a 250km round trip to attend a face-to-face interview with a new Workforce Australia provider, while another man would have spent seven hours away from home to make his meeting 60km away due to a lack of frequent buses. The department later intervened to say he could do his appointments by phone after the story was published.
Under the social security system, jobseekers can remain in the Centrelink system while not receiving payments due to excessive income from work. Only after six consecutive fortnights of receiving a “nil-payment” will they be removed from the system.
This gives them access to benefits such as a low-income health care card, even while they are not receiving a fortnightly social security payment. Remaining connected to Centrelink is crucial for David, as it means his jobseeker payment will kick in if his hours of work are cut in the future.
Welfare compliance is currently suspended as part of transition arrangements initiated by the government, though it resumes next month. For these reasons, David is reluctant to simply ignore his provider’s repeated contacts.
The western Sydney man said he had already volunteered the full details of his job and explained he could not attend job agency appointments. He said he was told the agency would email him.
“I haven’t received an email,” he said. “But I get text messages and voicemails, saying, ‘Please contact us’.”
He said he was considering taking a day off work and attending atWork to ask them to stop hassling him. He said this would cost him about $230 in pay for the day.
“I’m actually going to take the day off from work, I’m going to inform work that I’m not available,” he said. “And basically tell them the whole thing again. That ‘I am working. And I cannot be contacted’ and just to leave me alone.”
The department has determined that provider appointments are “core” compulsory requirements” which sit outside the “points-based activation system”, which David is easily meeting by working full-time hours.
David’s partner, Natasha Coster, has also been referred to atWork Australia’s Workforce Australia program and has sought to inform them of the situation.
“He got his next appointment, and I made a special trip to go down and say, ‘He won’t be coming in because he works,’” Coster said. “And then I got told they couldn’t discuss the details with me because there was a privacy issue and I go, ‘I am telling you, he can’t come. That can’t be a privacy issue.’”
AtWork Australia declined to comment on David’s situation, referring questions to the department.
A department spokesperson confirmed people were “not expected to give up any work to meet a mutual obligation requirement, including provider appointments, regardless of the mode of delivery”.
“Providers can schedule requirements, including appointments, at any time that would not interfere with an individual’s paid work commitments,” the spokesperson said.
“In general, an individual should keep their provider informed of their availability outside work hours, and can schedule work hours and other commitments in their calendar so their provider is aware of any times they are unavailable.”
The spokesperson said people with concerns could contact the department’s National Customer Service Line on 1800 805 260 or at [email protected]