The CPSU claims ongoing staff cuts in agencies such as Centrelink and Medicare are causing unacceptable delays for clients and creating an unsafe atmosphere where frustration and violence are common
Appearing on the Today Tonight program this week, CPSU National Secretary Nadine Flood said the union receives constant reports of violent incidents including spitting, punching and verbal aggression.
“Because of low staffing numbers, we're seeing clients who are waiting for hours on the phone, hours in offices and they're taking that out on the staff,”
“The real problem is that there simply are not enough staff to do the work,” said Ms Flood.
Official Centrelink figures released this week show staff were forced to sound the duress alarm more than a thousand times in just 17 months, while there were around 6,600 reports of aggression made by frontline workers. Meanwhile Department of Human Services staffing numbers - which include Centrelink - continue to decline, down from 36,788 in 2009/10 to 33,583 in 2011/12.
Transcript from Today Tonight program
September 11, 2012, 6:15 pm
Reporter Tineka Everaardt
Centrelink workers who are in the firing line as the welfare state turns into a state of chaos.
Staffers are being abused, attacked and assaulted by people taking out their frustrations at the counter.
As wait times rise, so does the level of Centrelink rage.
In broad daylight CCTV showed an orderly queue turning into a terrifying attack.
One staffer made a mad dash to sound the alarm while another tried to diffuse the situation by asking the man to leave - but he wasn't going without a fight.
The man wanted revenge, picking up a chair and striking his attacker mid-air. One young girl is ushered away from the violence while a terrified woman got out just in the nick of time.
"We're getting constant reports of violent incidents including spitting, punching and verbal aggression. We've had a customer who entered a child support office and actually put accelerant on the counter and set it alight," said Nadine Flood from the Community and Public Sector Union.
It sounds more like an action movie than a Government department but Nadine believes working for Centrelink has become dangerous business.
"They go into work and they're in fear for their own safety and that of their clients," Nadine added.
Centrelink's Hank Jongen says, "It is true there have been increasing reports of customer aggression. Centrelink has always had to deal with anti-social behaviour."
Centrelink staffers were forced to sound the duress alarm more than one thousand times in just 17 months, while there were around 6,600 reports of aggression made by frontline workers.
"The real problem here is that there simply are not enough staff to do the work. We're seeing people who are waiting for hours on the phone, hours in offices and they're taking that out on the staff," Nadine said.
Katie Shafar claims over the course of a month she spent nearly an entire day waiting for Centrelink.
"It's not unusual to be on the phone for at least an hour and a half," she said
But it's necessary - if Katie doesn't contact the agency every two weeks her daughter's payments are cancelled.
"My daughter has special needs and I'm her advocate and her nominee, so every fortnight I'm required by Centrelink to call them," she said.
While customers are told to report changing circumstances or face the penalties, getting hold of Centrelink can be mission impossible. And the latest data paints a grim portrait of our welfare system, where you can dob in a dole cheat and fast-track the queues.
"I think it is quite concerning and it is an indication of where Centrelink's placing its priorities," said Greens Senator, Rachel Siewert.
In May this year, older Australians were waiting on average 21 minutes; carer and disability clients 19.5; while unemployed compliance line clients were stuck on hold for an excruciating 47 minutes. But call the Centrelink tip-off line and dob in a dole cheat and you're answered in just one and a half minutes.
That data wasn't publicly available so Senator Siewert had to obtain it through a Parliamentary request. She claims the Government department isn't being transparent.
"What I tried to find out was how many are waiting longer than 30 min and more than 20 min.
Centrelink said it'd take too much time and too many resources to tell us -- now surely they do collect that data, but they're not making it available," she added.
"Centrelink and the Department of Human Services have cut over 3000 jobs in the last two years and that's at a time when there is more demand for their services", Nadine said.
They're figures that Centrelink denies.
"At no point have we reduced staffing in our call centre operations, in fact we've brought on board an additional 720 temporary staff," said Mr Jongen.
And Hank Jongen says wait times are coming down. "It is true we've been through a period of very high call demand and people have had to wait longer periods than is acceptable. The good news is we're over that end of Financial Year peak and waiting times have now come down".
Both sides of the argument are united in this plea: "Please be patient with them, don't take your frustrations out on the staff, you might want to contact your local MP instead," Nadine said.
Centrelink has established a working group, with the Union, looking at how to reduce aggression in Centrelink offices and is due to report in February next year.
Have you experienced workplace aggression?
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