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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Luke Henriques-Gomes Social affairs and inequality editor

Jobseeker forced to travel 60km to keep payments under new welfare program

Road sign with Lakes Entrance and Orbost
Jobseeker who lives in Orbost, Victoria, and does not drive has been told to attend Workforce appointments 60km away in Lakes Entrance. Photograph: Chris Hopkins/The Guardian

A man living in regional Victoria has been told to attend job agency appointments more than 60km away under the federal government’s new $1.5bn-a-year Workforce Australia program.

And another jobseeker, who has lived with a mental health condition, said he felt “degraded” by his first experience at his new job agency, after his mutual obligations requirements were increased under the new “point-based activation system” (Pbas).

Advocates have been critical of the rollout and design of Workforce Australia, which includes the contentious “points-based” mutual obligations system aimed at giving jobseekers more flexibility and an online portal that faced technical issues in its first week.

While the government insisted that it was “too late” to overhaul the model, the minister, Tony Burke, has made some minor changes and given jobseekers a “clean slate” and paused welfare penalties for 30 days across the system.

As part of the rollout from Jobactive to Workforce Australia, thousands of jobseekers have been connected with new job agencies after a shake-up of the contracts held by private providers.

Joel Ribergaard, 30, who lives in Orbost, in the Gippsland region, had previously been connected to a Jobactive job agency in the town of more than 3,000 people.

But there was no Workforce Australia provider in Orbost, where about 440 people were on the jobseeker payment, according to government data.

Text messages show Ribergaard was booked for an appointment at 12.45pm on Wednesday with the Salvation Army Employment Plus in Lakes Entrance, more than 60km away from his home in Orbost.

“I neither drive nor have my own transport,” he said. “They [buses] only come through here once in a blue moon and then it takes way longer to get to there by bus.”

According to Public Transport Victoria timetables, to have attended his appointment at 12.45pm this week, Ribergaard would have needed to leave home at 10.40am.

The online timetables show there was no weekday bus back to Orbost until 6.35pm, which means he would arrive home at 7.40pm.

After missing his appointment on Wednesday, Ribergaard said he was contacted by his job agency, which booked a new appointment for him in three weeks. He said he was told by his consultant they were not able to do the appointment over the phone.

Payment suspensions and “demerit points” – which could see jobseekers further penalised for not meeting their obligations – were suspended by the government for the first month.

But they would resume next month, despite calls from welfare advocates for a pause of at least 90 days.

Ribergaard said he had spent much of the week on the phone to the Department of Employment and Workforce Relations trying to sort out the issue.

“[The department] told me on the phone yesterday … that there are no jobseeker providers in the town, just [disability employment services] people,” Ribergaard said. “So … all the people on jobseeker in Orbost have to find a way to get to a town an hour away.”

Under the new model, hundreds of thousands of more “job-ready” jobseekers now use an online portal rather than attending job agency appointments. This was to reduce the caseloads of the remaining providers so they have more resources to help the jobseekers assigned to them, who would be long-term unemployed or have other barriers to employment.

But the Australian Council of Social Service acting chief executive, Edwina MacDonald, said the changeover to Workforce Australia had “left gaps in some areas” due to the reduction in providers under the new contacts. There are 80 fewer sites under the new model.

MacDonald said providers needed to be flexible, but this was “not often people’s experience”.

Kristin O’Connell, a spokesperson for the Antipoverty Centre, said the organisation had heard from others who say they were placed with inappropriate providers.

She said activities could be done by phone or online, as occurred earlier in the pandemic. “All the flexibility sits with the provider, who gets to control someone’s life and decide how much difficulty they had to put themselves through to maintain their payments.”

Workforce provider appointments increased

In the Victorian town of Maryborough, about 80km north of Ballarat, there were now only two job agencies, both of whom are for-profit providers.

John*, 50, is a former public servant with a lengthy employment history across government departments who has been on the jobseeker payment for three years.

Due to mental health and physical conditions, he was previously required to search for eight jobs rather than the usual 20.

John said his new requirement was to obtain 65 points under the new Pbas, which likely meant applying for 13 jobs a month starting from August.

He was also told he would need to attend fortnightly appointments where previously these were on a monthly basis.

Under the Pbas, jobseekers must obtain a set level of points to meet their obligations. They get the points by submitting a job application (worth five points each), or by collecting further points from a lengthy list of tasks including studying (20 points for full-time), working (five points for five hours), counselling, and attending job interviews.

John said it would be difficult to apply for that many jobs in his local area. “I can’t go for physical jobs, like a bricklayer … or whatever, due to a physical lack of ability,” he said.

“At this stage it means I’m basically going to have to double the amount of spamming for employers … To try to do 13 [job applications for professional positions] is just not possible, not with the quality and not without wasting people’s time.”

The appointment and his new mutual obligations target also triggered his anxiety.

His new provider’s office had an open-plan office which lacks privacy. He said it was “humiliating and degrading”.

“I could hear the conversations,” he said. “So now I know that [one man] wants to work outdoors but needs a licence as he had trouble getting one, and [another man] has poor reading and writing and bad arthritis but needs to work since his wife died. This was the detail you could get just waiting [for my appointment].”

A Department of Employment and Workplace Relations spokesperson said the department would “monitor the delivery of employment services and its accessibility for participants and will discuss with providers if further outreach servicing is required, in addition to the option for online/phone service delivery”.

The spokesperson said providers were required to “deliver face-to-face servicing to participants, including at the initial Interview, unless otherwise directed by the Department or a circumstance arises where it is not possible”, such as due to “travel time and access to transport”.

The points target is also supposed to be “individually tailored”. “Participants should discuss their circumstances with their provider to ensure that all factors affecting their ability to meet their requirements are taken into account and an appropriate points target is set, suited to their circumstances,” the spokesperson said.

*Name has been changed for privacy

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