Extra Services Australia staff will come on board from Monday as the agency scrambles to ramp up capacity following two days of websites outages, long call centre delays and long queues at Centrelink offices.
Services Australia general manager Hank Jongen said 3.2 million logged on to its myGov website yesterday and agency insiders report that offices have seen a six-fold increase in the number of people coming in person to seek assistance.
Mr Jongen said the agency was "rapidly deploying more staff and hiring staff as quickly as [we] can. Redeployed staff are answering calls and more staff are being trained".
Hundreds of thousands of people suddenly rendered jobless by a government-mandated shutdown of bars, clubs, cafes, restaurants and other indoor venues that took effect on Monday have faced enormous problems in trying to register for and access Services Australia assistance in the past two days, including website crashes, call centre delays of three hours or more and hours-long waits for service at Centrelink offices.
Acknowledging the problems, Mr Jongen said agency technicians had been working hard to boost the capacity of the myGov website from 40,000 to 150,000 concurrent users, and would continue to "progressively" increase its ability to handle simultaneous transactions.
He said that a button had been added to the myGov website to enable people to register, and all applications for Covid-19 assistance would be backdated to Monday in acknowledgement of the difficulties people have confronted in lodging applications.
Mr Jongen said people who already had a Centrelink Reference Number could use that to access services. Those who did not have a CRN could get one over the phone as long as they had some proof of identity such as a passport or driver's licence.
He urged people not to visit Centrelink offices in person.
"You don't need to visit us to get the support you need," Mr Jongen said, warning that Centrelink offices were following social distancing protocols and only allowing a certain number to enter at any one time.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Sunday that an extra 5000 staff would be recruited to Services Australia, and Mr Jongen said new workers were being trained and would start to come on line from next Monday.
Community and Public Sector Union national secretary Melissa Donnelly has urged that the extra staff not be hired on a short-term basis.
"It is essential that that the new staff be APS [Australian Public Service] employees and for the long-term.
"All the evidence indicates that it will take a long time to recover from this pandemic and Services Australia needs to ongoing staffing and resources to be able to help people through this extended period," Ms Donnelly said.
Families and Social Services Minister Anne Ruston acknowledged on Tuesday that the "extraordinary spike" in demand was driven in part by a government-mandated shutdown of bars, clubs, cafes, restaurants and other indoor venues that took effect across the ACT yesterday, throwing thousands of hospitality and retail staff out of work.
But the minister also blamed misinformation being spread on social media for helping drive the surge in people seeking to access services either through the MyGov website or in person at Centrelink offices.
"It is an unprecedented situation," Ms Ruston said. "It is moving very rapidly, unexpectedly, and we are doing everything we can to make sure that we can keep ahead."
The minister said Services Australia had boosted the capacity of the MyGov website by 50 per cent after Monday's meltdown and was now able to handle up to 150,000 transactions at any one time.
But the Community and Public Sector Union said years of sustained job cuts had left Services Australia understaffed and unable to cope with inquiries under normal circumstances, let alone dealing with the spike in demand triggered by this week's extraordinary measures to clamp down on the transmission of the Covid-19 infection.
The union said that since 2013 more than 3823 Services Australia and Centrelink jobs had been cut.
"There is no doubt that Services Australia is understaffed and overworked at the best of times," CPSU National Secretary Melissa Donnelly said. "This is a direct result of staff cuts and increased outsourcing of essential services."
Ms Donnelly said Monday had been "one of the hardest days of our members' working lives", and blamed it on the federal government for failing to anticipate the surge in demand from people seeking support."
"The fact they didn't or ignored it is as short-sighted as it is disgraceful," she said.
- For information on COVID-19, please go to the federal Health Department's website.
- You can also call the Coronavirus Health Information Line on 1800 020 080
- If you have serious symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, call Triple Zero (000)
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