Lengthy call waiting times, long queues at Centrelink offices and constant online technical problems have bubbled over into increased levels of hostility to staff working at Centrelink offices and call centres, says Labor Senator Doug Cameron.
The number of aggressive incidents directed at Centrelink staff rose to 24 a day in the 11 months to the end of May 2015, up from 20 a day in 2012-2013, a budget estimates committee was recently told.
There has been a corresponding increase in the number of Centrelink customers who have had service restrictions imposed upon them because of their behaviour, including being banned from face-to-face contact and being assigned one main contact or being banned from having face-to-face or phone contact. There were 776 people on some kind of service restriction in 2012-2013 and this jumped to 998 in 2014-2015.
Mr Cameron, who asked the questions at the Senate’s Community Affairs Legislation Committee, said the federal government had taken its eye off the ball and needed to improve its service delivery to Centrelink customers on the phone, online and face-to-face, while also ensuring frontline staff had the skills and authority to solve people’s problems.
He also blamed the slippage in service delivery on what he called the federal government’s “ideological attack” on Department of Human Service (DHS) employees’ wages and conditions as the enterprise bargaining process grinds on.
The Department’s staff are due to vote on the enterprise agreement between 4 September and 10 September.
“For the past 18 months, the Department of Human Services (DHS) has been mired in the Abbott Government’s unfair and disastrous public service workplace bargaining policy. The policy has distracted the Department from its core business,” Mr Cameron said.
“On top of the Abbott Government’s disdain for staff morale, acts of aggression from Centrelink clients about issues over which staff have no control merely adds insult to injury”, he said.
There is also another argument that as more Centrelink customers do their business online with DHS, only the most complex cases – and the most frustrated customers – will present at Centrelink offices.
It is something that DHS itself freely acknowledges.
Grant Tidswell Deputy Secretary, Service Delivery Operations Group at DHS has said: “For those complex inquiries—where there are multiple claim issues, things have gone astray or there are language difficulties or other vulnerability issues—there is no doubt about it: it can be challenging. Hence our service centres. They largely become the troubleshooters to help sort through those complex inquiries.”
Whatever the reason for Centrelink staff having to deal with angry verbal and, to a lesser extent, physical aggression, Deputy National President of the Community and Public Services Union Lisa Newman said the government had a “serious problem on its hands”.
“Customer aggression at Centrelink ranges from the extremes of serious physical assault on staff and other customers through to intimidation, harassment and verbal abuse,” Ms Newman said.
“When you sack thousands of public sector workers that leads to longer queues, millions of phone calls going unanswered and growing frustration and aggression from customers.
“We know that the current approach being taken by the Department is not working, as evidenced by the increasing number of incidents being reported. Staff must be protected in the workplace and a zero tolerance approach to customer aggression must be backed up by real, meaningful actions not just words.”
She said that a strong zero tolerance approach to customer aggression meant less staff being injured, less people away on leave and more staff at work helping customers.
The Department has various strategies in place to reduce incidents of customer aggression including: warnings, restricted service arrangements, de-escalation tactics, hanging up, post-incident support and customer aggression training.
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