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ABC News
ABC News
the Specialist Reporting Team's Evan Young and social affairs correspondent Norman Hermant

Fear and confusion from jobseekers as 'dramatic' changes to Centrelink mutual obligations loom

Cherie Grant still feels in the dark about exactly what the upcoming changes mean for her. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

Cherie Grant has spent the past week frantically searching for answers. 

After finding out last week via social media about a major overhaul to the way unemployed Australians such as her would need to engage with the government from next month, the 47-year-old became worried.

Despite various attempts to ascertain how the changes will affect her, the Melbourne woman and uni student — who lives with chronic back and neck pain and has been on the JobSeeker payment since 2018 — remains in the dark.

"I have been to my job agency but they don't know anything about it and I've been trying to contact Centrelink and I just can't get through," she said.

"I tried looking online … and [there was] nothing that seemed to clearly represent my status and what I would have to do."

Cherie Grant has been living on JobSeeker since 2018. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

At the start of July, jobactive — the Australian government's main employment services program — will be replaced by a new service called Workforce Australia, immediately impacting around 792,000 people.

The aim of jobactive was to help people on Centrelink payments apply for jobs or undertake further training, but it was criticised as"punitive" by welfare groups.

A Senate committee in 2019 found it was "not fit for purpose".

Despite Workforce Australia launching in less than a month, Ms Grant said she is living in "limbo".

And it appears she's not alone — welfare advocates say they've been receiving a large number of reports from people saying the new system hasn't been properly explained to them.

What's changing exactly? 

From July 4, around 169,000 "job-ready" participants will be moved to an online portal to manage their job searches, while some 592,000 others will be referred to a new face-to-face job provider.

People required to complete mutual obligations — tasks and activities aimed at helping people find a job — will also transition to what's being called the Points Based Activation System (PBAS).

They'll need to accumulate 100 points a month — earned through activities such as completing job applications or training courses — to continue receiving their payments.

Points targets may be reduced based on "personal circumstances" and extra points can be carried over into the next month, according to the Department of Education, Skills and Employment's (DESE) website.

The PBAS replaces the current system where jobseekers are required to submit 20 job applications a month.

Welfare advocates say the changes could see people participating in more mutual obligations requirements than under the current rules.

Job seekers will soon need to earn 100 points per month on the PBAS to make sure their payments don't get cut (AAP: Dan Peled)

For example, under the PBAS, a person doing the work for the dole program full-time would only get 20 points a week, meaning they'd need to complete other activities on top of that to keep their payments.

Work for the dole will also be compulsory for people after six months in the face-to-face stream, rather than the current 12, though people will only need to do it for two months instead of six.

Attending a job interview or starting a job will be worth 20 points under the PBAS, and completing an application, five points.

'Absolutely terrified'

Kristin O'Connell, a spokesperson from the Antipoverty Centre, said the "dramatic" changes have not been explained in enough detail, causing fear and confusion among the hundreds of thousands of people to whom it will apply.

"We're going to have people trying to figure out how to navigate a new system at the same time as worrying about losing their payment at a time when costs are out of control," she said.

Ms O'Connell said there was also concern the new online system would mean an increase in "decisions made by computers".

"Governments do not have a good track record of delivering digital services in this country, and we don't expect the tech rollout ... to go smoothly," she said.

"We don't have great hope that people are going to understand their options or feel supported when they're trying to navigate either the online system or the face-to-face one."

Ms Grant is worried about potentially having to do more than she can "physically cope with".

Life is already difficult surviving on her JobSeeker payment of about $48 per day, which is considered to be below the poverty line.

"I'm worried that if what I have to do for Centrelink becomes physically too demanding on me, will I have to drop out of study? I don't know — I can't find out because I can't speak to them."

"A lot of people are probably in more precarious situations … I'm very, very worried about me, but also about other people."

Kristin O'Connell says the rollout of the new system has been confusing. (ABC News: Adam Wyatt)

The ABC heard from a number of jobseekers deeply concerned about the changes who did not want to be publicly identified or speak openly due to a fear of reprisal.

A single mother who lives in Gippsland in regional Victoria said she was "absolutely terrified" about the PBAS and how she would scrape 100 points together every month.

"It's stressing a lot of people out and a lot of people are really scared, especially people with health issues and people with children," she said.

"Mutual obligations are unrealistic when you live in a small town. If I was to live [closer to a city] there'd be a lot more opportunities and there'd be a lot more jobs. But being in a small town, they still give you the same amount [to do]."

What do providers think?

Sally Sinclair, the CEO of National Employment Services Association — the peak body for the contracted employment services sector — said the "principles" of the reforms were well-supported by the sector.

"I think people are actually looking forward now to being able to work in a way that's intended … to provide more intensive services to people who are the furthest from the labour market."

She said having to move nearly 592,000 people to new job providers by July 4 and start them on a fresh job plan would be challenging, but transitions of similar scales have occurred in the past.

The Workforce Australia changes were passed under the Morrison government following a trial that began in 2019 in South Australia and New South Wales.

The office of new Employment Minister Tony Burke declined to comment.

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