Last year, CSMC member, Ania*, spent an anxious three months trying to get through to Centrelink. She had managed to secure some part time work that she could do from home while parenting her children, and she wanted to notify Centrelink as soon as possible.
“I needed to know how much my Parenting Payment Single would decrease so I could plan for it,” she says.
With a three month old baby and a 21 month old toddler, Ania was forced to hang up while on hold with Centrelink waiting for her call to be answered three times. Each time her anxiety increased.
“The worst scenario running through my head was that I was being overpaid and would eventually be hit with a debt I would struggle to pay off,” she said. “It kept me awake at night, but what could I do? The baby was crying; my toddler has to be supervised at all times for his safety. I can’t wait on hold for extended periods of time.”
It’s a story that CSMC hears often, and has just been confirmed by data tabled this week in Senate estimates.
According to the report, from July 2022 to January 2023 Centrelink was phoned 25 million time. Only 8.3 million calls were answered.
Over two million of calls were ended by customers who, like Ania, were unable to be kept on hold.
Over five million callers received a ‘congestion message’, when a recorded message says, “We are experiencing a high volume of calls at the moment and are unable to take your call. We apologise for the inconvenience. Thank you for calling. Goodbye” before hanging up.
Not helpful for the caller, but certainly helpful for Centrelink PR. In 2017, it was reported that 28 million people got a busy signal when trying to reach Centrelink in a six month period. In 2020, Centrelink replaced busy signals in favour of a recorded message, significantly reducing the number of busy signals reported.
Services Australia chief executive, Rebecca Skinner, told Senate estimates that the current Centrelink call times were “less than… optimal”. That’s one way to describe them.
Data tabled in estimates showed the average waiting time between July 2022 and 31 January 2023 was 18.04 minutes. That’s up from 14.14 minutes in 2021-22.
Ania says the longest time she had to wait before hanging up to attend to her children was 40 minutes.
Don Farrell, who represented the government services minister Bill Shorten, said in estimates that the former Government had reduced the average staffing level by 3,515 between 2016-17 and 2019-20. That’s the equivalent of 13 per cent of the workforce.
According to the data, the highest wait times for Centrelink included the families and parenting line.
“This is an issue of safety,” says CSMC CEO Jenny Davidson. “These wait times are impacting the mental health and welfare of single mothers and putting the safety of their children at risk.
“We’re calling on the Government to put the best interests of children at the forefront of all its Centrelink decisions, and rectify this shameful lack of service provision regarding call waiting times as a matter of importance.”
*Name has been changed to protect the privacy of the single mother.