People are reporting having to make hundreds of calls to Centrelink before the phone line even connects, and spending hours on hold once their call actually goes through, as the nation's welfare debt recovery saga continues.
Thousands of Australians across the country have recently received correspondence from Centrelink claiming there is a discrepancy in their records, and asking for updates and clarification. In some cases, the welfare agency has asked for pay records from many years ago; in others, the person has received a debt notice for many thousands of dollars.
Understandably, people are trying to contact Centrelink to ask questions, provide more information or dispute the debt -- but some say they have made hundreds of calls to various Centrelink phone lines only to spend hours on hold.
A quick scan through social media finds many stories like this; people who have been sent debt recovery notices, or who have been asked for more employment information, but who have been left completely frustrated by the Centrelink's phone system.
Dan Buzzard, from Perth, showed the Huffington Post Australia evidence he had called 132 490 -- for enquiries about Austudy, the Low Income Health Care Card, the Pensioner Education Supplement and Youth Allowance -- 350 times on Tuesday before even getting a dial tone, being rejected with messages that the line was busy.
"I went into the office four times but they wanted me to do it online or on the phone. [On Tuesday] I tried the phone, the line was busy, and it took 24 attempts to even get through the first time. Then I spent an hour on hold and the line went dead," he told HuffPost Australia.
"Then I had to make 350 calls before I even got a dial tone, then it was an hour and a half on hold before I even spoke to a person."
Dan said his 350 calls were spaced over two and a half hours, "just hitting redial over and over."
"I got to about 50 calls, and I thought I'd see how far it goes," he joked.
"I don't know how many other people would just give up. I hadn't realised how bad the system had got.
As a test, the Huffington Post Australia called 132 490 -- which has received many complaints about long wait times -- eleven times over the course of five hours on Wednesday, but the lines were busy and the call went dead each and every time.
We also called the number for the customer compliance branch, where people are being directed to confirm their employment income, and were connected to an operator quickly.
In a statement, Department of Human Services general manager Hank Jongen told HuffPost Australia that Centrelink's phone service was not experiencing longer than usual wait times.
"There is no evidence of phone lines and service centres being adversely impacted – demand for our services is consistent with this time of year," Jongen said.
"Callers and visitors to our service centres may experience delays from time to time and especially during peak periods. For example, early morning, at lunch times and end of day on Friday. As demand varies throughout the day, the department moves staff to areas that are experiencing high demand to help keep wait times down."
"Currently, the Department's average speed of answer on the telephone lines is under 16 minutes."
Jongen recommended people trying to update their details or provide information was online, through the MyGov website.
Andre, from Sydney, told HuffPost Australia he spent about an hour on the phone regarding an $1100 debt notice he received just before Christmas. He said Centrelink's phone system was very confusing.
"The challenge was knowing which phone line to actually call about the audit. There's a half-dozen different numbers on the Department of Human Services website just for Centrelink," he said.
"I think I called three different numbers before I got a line, adding another 15 minutes to that. That was after spending around an hour on the website trying to find information on the assessment process."
Andre called it "supremely frustrating".
"It's like it's been set up to be hard to navigate or something," he said.
Centrelink's Twitter account is working overtime responding to customer enquiries, with many of Centrelink's replies telling people to stay patient; "It's a busy time. Pls continue to try, we can assure you that staff are working hard & calls are getting through" came one reply to a customer's complaint.
As Jongen told HuffPost Australia, the agency recommended people use the online tools at Centrelink's website instead of calling. However, despite even the social services minister Christian Porter telling people to "go online and explain" their situations, users are also reporting issues with the internet option.
Imagine if we billed centrelink for our time and distress, each time we have to phone them? #auspol
— Cat Bert (@LittleBertie01) January 3, 2017
Dan, who made 350 calls to Centrelink, had this to say in response.
"You can only solve this with employees, you need people to staff the calls. It can't always be just sending online or to an automated service. Sometimes you need someone there to help."
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