At the same time that the welfare agency is dealing with a significant increase in waiting times for Centrelink services, up to 180 employees quit their jobs each month at Services Australia, and over 20% of those employees say they plan to depart within the next year.
The most recent employee satisfaction survey, which has not yet been made publically available, was brought up during a hearing on estimates held by the Senate on Tuesday. The meeting was held in response to concerns that the agency has been having trouble keeping staff due to declining morale and difficult working conditions.
Russell Egan, the chief operating officer, attempted to talk on the good results of the staff survey when he was asked about it. These results included a “very strong commitment to [their role] and serving the public” and the creation of surroundings that benefitted consumers.
Egan admitted he was choosing the “highlights”. Janet Rice, a senator for the Green Party, answered by saying, “you are choosing the ones you want to highlight,” and she inquired about metrics such as the percentage of employees who would suggest the agency to others as a positive place to work.
In 2022, this metric came in at a value of -5%. The numbers needed for the 2023 survey were not readily available to Egan or the staff leaders.
Under pressure from Rice, the deputy chief executive officer of Services Australia, Jarrod Howard, revealed that in the service delivery group, approximately twenty percent of workers did not recommend the organization as a good place to work, and eighteen percent of employees intended to leave the company during the following calendar year. According to Howard, the outgoing staff members were leaving due to retirements or because they wanted to move on to other organizations in order to advance their careers.
14% of employees at the organization reported in 2022 that they would not recommend it to others as a good place to work, and Howard characterized the increase of 6% over the previous year as “only slightly higher.”
“Maybe a little bit higher? Rice remarked that this was a significant increase. As a senior manager, that would raise red flags for me to investigate further.
At the hearing, it was stated that between 140 and 180 staff members left the agency each month. Egan stated that this number was “broadly comparable to the rate of attrition across the Australian jobs market at this point in time.”
When pressed on the procedures that the agency had implemented to retain staff, Howard and other officials responded that they would answer when they were given notice.
Rice stated that the organization was still in a state of crisis. “When I questioned Services Australia on this staff dissatisfaction at estimates today, they had no answer for how to address this; instead, they wanted to focus on their positive results,” Rice said. Their heads are completely buried in the sand.
“And this isn’t just based on the results of their survey of the personnel. Employees of Services Australia have gotten in touch with me and shared their complaints regarding their time with the company… The frontline work that staff members of Services Australia are performing every day has an impact on vulnerable people all around the country.
The departure of workers follows the dismal conclusions of the royal commission that investigated the robodebt scheme, and it comes at a time when the agency is dealing with the fallout of separate but connected legal difficulties concerning welfare debt. In September, Services Australia issued a public apology to its personnel about robodebt. The company’s management stated that employees who enforced the plan had experienced a “unfair toll.”
Bill Shorten, the minister of government services, made the announcement on Monday that a worker recruitment campaign would be launched, with a commitment of $228 million to acquire extra 3,000 employees for Services Australia. The addition of staff members has been undertaken with the intention of reducing the workloads of existing employees as well as the wait times endured by those who rely on the services provided by Centrelink.
Rice stated that if there was not a significant change in the company’s culture, it “won’t fix the failures of Services Australia if they are stressed and overworked and end up wanting to leave soon after they start.”
Howard stated that employees working in call centers for the agency received regular breaks, including a five-minute break for every hour of screen time, as well as “specific meal breaks and they can go to the toilet when they need to.” This was a reference to claims made in 2021 that employees working in call centers were policed about their toilet breaks.
According to Howard, under his leadership, Services Australia was moving away from average handling time targets, which assess the length of time it takes for calls to be answered.
“If we’ve got a particular team that’s got a really high average handling time compared to others, then we will look to, sort of see, whether or not there’s any support that we can give that team to bring it down,” he said.
“We don’t have targets, but we do sort of, you know, we keep an eye on it to make sure that we’re trying because, once again, whilst we want to achieve first contact resolution, we also want our programs to be efficient and effective,” she said. “We don’t have targets, but we do sort of, you know, we keep an eye on it to make sure that we’re trying.”
The most recent data showed that the average waiting time for calls to Centrelink in July and August was 32 minutes, which is significantly longer than the average waiting time of 22 minutes during the previous fiscal year. This is despite the fact that trends show the agency is generally fielding fewer calls. The amount of time it takes for a claim to be processed before benefits are given has significantly increased for around 27 of the 32 different types of payments offered by Centrelink.