Technology

Inside my Centrelink nightmare: myGov 'error' locks new mother out of maternity leave payments

Bec Smith's dreams of motherhood came true when she welcomed baby Matilda into her world four weeks ago. But trying to access maternity leave payments for her newborn through Centrelink quickly turned into a nightmare which shows no sign of ending.

Getting online to access government services was not just difficult, as she had been warned. It was impossible.

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Mrs Smith, who lives in the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn East, has been unable to access online services through myGov for three months thanks to an "error" which nobody seems to know how to fix. Every time she speaks with a customer service staff member, she is told a different story about what the problem is and how it might be fixed.

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Bec Smith is at her wits' end after being locked out of myGov for three months, preventing her from accessing parental ...
Bec Smith is at her wits' end after being locked out of myGov for three months, preventing her from accessing parental leave through Centrelink. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Without the $657 a week before tax paid parental leave instalments, Mrs Smith is living off savings and her credit card.

"We've got paediatrician's bills that are $500," she said.

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"I'm at my wits' end and I don't know where to go."

She first set up an online account with myGov, the federal government's online services platform which requires one login to access multiple linked services including Centrelink, Medicare and the Tax Office, in August.

When she went to a Centrelink shopfront to verify her ID, Mrs Smith was unable to log in at the office's own online kiosk. A staff member told her the "system was down" and to try again at home. She tried multiple computers and browsers but still couldn't log in.

"For the first six weeks [trying to get online] every single person [at Centrelink] said the 'system must be down'," she said.

After multiple phone calls and visits to the Camberwell Centrelink office, she was eventually told "they had no idea what the problem was" and to submit her claim by post. She did this, only to be told because she couldn't get online, her claim couldn't be processed.

When Mrs Smith gave birth on October 26, two months after first trying to apply for the payment, the problems with her account were still not resolved.

I'm at my wits' end and I don't know where to go.

Mother Bec Smith

"I came home from hospital on the Saturday and rang [Centrelink] on the Monday; every single day I called and was on the phone for an average of 2.5 hours a day," Mrs Smith said.

"The worst bit is I'm not getting any communication with Centrelink because all the letters are in the myGov account, and I can't get on to see them or change my preferences for correspondence to be sent by post."

Eventually she was told the myGov problem was a "known issue" and a "serious error" that "intermittently" affected people at random, with "no pattern to it". One staff member told her that asking for a time frame on when her problem might be resolved was "unrealistic".

"I was basically told to suck it up," Mrs Smith said.

Mrs Smith estimates she has visited Centrelink offices 15 times, spoken on the phone with "at least 50" consultants and wasted "at least 35 hours [on the phone in the last three weeks] all whilst trying to juggle a newborn".

"I can't see an end to this," she said, describing the experience as "a nightmare".

"I even had a dream about it where I had to attend seminars to get the payment and I forgot to attend so I didn't get the payment," she said.

In a statement, the Department of Human Services, which runs Centrelink and myGov, said it was investigating the cause of this issue.

"We have also contacted Ms Smith to apologise for the frustration caused by this error and we are working with her to finalise her claim as quickly as possible," a departmental spokesperson said.

DHS was unable to comment on whether the problem was widespread.

However Centrelink's Facebook page is littered with daily complaints from customers including images of call wait times on mobile phones of over an hour, and complaints of being locked out of myGov accounts. Fairfax Media has also received correspondence from frustrated users unable to access their myGov accounts on an ongoing basis due to unresolved errors.

While Mrs Smith has savings and credit to fall back on, she is concerned that more vulnerable people may have been affected by the problem and not been able to access payments as a result.

National Welfare Rights Network president Kate Beaumont said NWRM's members – community legal centres which provide welfare advice for disadvantaged people – had received complaints from clients about technical problems when accessing myGov.

"We welcome the use of technology to simplify and improve the user experience accessing government payments, but are concerned to ensure that people with obstacles to using these technologies are not further disadvantaged," Ms Beaumont said.

"DHS had a budget surplus of $65.8 million last year, and $132.6 million in the year before. We think this should have been spent on improving face to face servicing."

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