Being on the Dole is a Full Time Job

It’s 6 months since I applied for the dole and I’m here at 3am, typing up my story now because I can’t believe the convoluted, flawed system that thousands of unemployed, or underemployed Australians are trying to work with.

Instead of spending as much time as possible, working up my business again, (which, by the way, is what is on my Mutual Obligation Form) I am spending way too much time arguing with my Job Service Provider, talking to the union, reading documentation to try and work out my rights and working out my next move. One of my friends is very cross with me because they told me to ‘just make up something and fly under the radar.’ But I won’t. (Please refer back to first paragraph.)

6 months ago, I finally realised my business had been so quiet for months, I had used up my savings and I had to go on the dole. I had been in denial. I didn’t want to go on the dole, but I really had no other option. I thanked goodness that I lived in a country that actually had unemployment benefits.

I tried to put aside my ego, my shame, my embarrassment, and called the Centrelink office. By the time I had waited an hour to get through, was interviewed in depth, told what (numerous) forms I needed to complete, (some of which turned out to be unnecessary) downloaded them, completed them, checked with my accountant what other information they would probably need, accessed that, it was 4 hours later and I had a splitting migraine.

I remember thinking, this was really hard work. Nobody would do this for fun.
Here’s a quick overview. I kept notes. I have a ring binder folder full. Plus an exercise book so I can keep track. The Job Service Provider thought this was my business portfolio and were amazed when I told them no, these are my notes and information because I am on the dole. Which leads me to wonder: why were they so surprised? They clearly don’t know how much work this is. Anyway, here are some highlights…

Tues 19 April: 1st call to Centrelink, documentation, dropped it in.
Wed 20 April: Call from C’link. Phone interview explaining I can get a doctor’s certificate because of my health issue, (chronic fatigue) then assessment by an occupational therapist, then don’t need a Job Service Provider.
Fri 27 April: coffee with a friend to find out about volunteering, as I am over 55.
Wed 27 April: my 1st volunteering shift at a local op shop. Asked them to give me the volunteering form to take in to C’link.
Thurs 28 April: interview with a volunteer association.
Friday 29 April: visit to a nursing home to talk to them about volunteering. Police clearance form sent to volunteering association.
Mon 2 May: phoned C’link about a letter I got that made no sense.
Tues 3 May: had a phone consultation with my doctor who has a 2 month wait list, to get a medical certificate to say I would be ok volunteering 6 hours a week, rather than the 15. (I had been working part-time for years, about 15 hours a week because of health issues. I wanted to contribute, hence the volunteering, but also wanted to have time to try and build my business of nearly 20 years back up.)
Wed 4 May: Centrelink called and advised I was approved, asked about my medical certificate.
Thurs 5 May: received my medical certificate, took it in to C’link.
They didn’t want my volunteering form yet. Set up my myGov account, set up my Centrelink account. Was advised that I didn’t need to report any income fortnightly and that I report my business income quarterly with a profit and loss statement. I was in there a couple of hours that day.
Tues 17 May: Employment service assessment at Centrelink. Advised I do not get any reduction in hours, even though my doctor says I should work no more than 6 hours. If I worked less than 15 hours, I don’t qualify for the dole. Yes, I do need a Job Service Provider. She allocated me one who works with people with disabilities.
Tues 7 June: Appointment at the Disability Job Service Provider, who saw that I had an exemption and told me he couldn’t put me on their books until that had expired.

You get the picture. Fast forward to today.

Since that appointment, I had to cancel most of the volunteering I planned to do, as I just didn’t have time. I was disappointed to waste people’s time and then let people down who desperately need volunteers but the system just made it too hard. By the way, one of the volunteers at my op shop had mentioned that he’d been told that his 20+ hours per week at the shop count for nothing and he needs to job search. I told him this was not true, but he didn’t believe me. I can understand it. Why would you believe another volunteer rather than the important looking person in the suit with the clip board sitting behind the desk?

I also tried to get my Job Service Provider changed
I found his communication quite confusing and all over the place, not able to give me clear, straight answers to my questions. I was told by Centrelink it was up to me to find another one, and then ask to transfer which may or may not be granted. I spent a day on the internet and the phone, researching a few local ones, and talking to them on the phone, chose one, went to an appointment, wanted to join them, filled out a form, then was called by my original Job Service Provider to advise that the other one is full and they cannot therefore transfer me. So I decided it was all too hard, I would just stay put and work with the one I had. One benefit: they wanted to see me ‘only’ once a fortnight, the other wanted me in every week. I have since learnt that I only need to go in once a month!

Where I am now
I am now successfully working 15+ hours a week in my business and am making more than the minimum required by Centrelink, so as well as building my business back up, I am meeting my Mutual Obligations.

However, my Job Service Provider is now telling me that I need to provide information that I don’t believe I do, telling me if I don’t, I will be cut off, that I need to job search, despite their own information sheet (and the Unemployed Workers Union info) telling me I do not.

Emails are going back and forth, I have asked for the relevant documentation so I can see where the government requires me to do this, they have said I might be right, that I don’t need to. But now tell me they will change my contract and I need to job search. I have said I will not, via email and cc’d in my local MP. I received a phone call from my Job Service Provider within 2 minutes of sending that email. (Good tip, thanks guys!)

The Job Service Provider advised me that he is getting his Contract Manager to give me a call. I said fine, as long as he is also in on the call because if he is giving me information that is different from what his manager will be telling me, he should be in on the call.

Why doesn’t he know the information she does, if he is the one telling us what we need to do? Why am I pointing out things in their documentation that he doesn’t know? This is the guy whose communication style is not good, who tells me that no, volunteering is not taken into account in the 15 hours, and then at another appointment, when there is another consultant there, he agrees with me that it is.

This is also the guy who has, on 3 separate occasions, told me that I am perfectly entitled to make a complaint if I am not happy with them. It’s like he wants a fight! I respond that I don’t want to make a complaint, I just want to have a conversation and see if we can get on the same page and make this work. I do not want a fight, but if they back me into a corner, I will come out fighting.

Which is really not good for my health. Symptoms of my condition include fatigue, lack of sleep, anxiety and depression. This week I have spent 5 hours trying to handle this situation with my Job Service Provider. And it’s only Thursday. That’s 5 hours I should be spending on my business.

This is exhausting. It’s a fulltime job.
And I am not the only one. I have a friend who is working 12 hours a week, got $500+ just to get her C’link payment that fortnight reduced by $300. She’s got 2 kids to feed and school, trying to start a little business from home as well for extra money, and trying to get a loan which she will probably now not qualify for.

The system is broken
Every time I went back to Centrelink with the information I had been requested to bring in, the next person I saw told me something slightly different. It’s like they all have their own piece of the jigsaw puzzle, but the pieces just don’t seem to fit together. The system is broken.

But I want to make something very clear. Apart from one cranky woman at Centrelink who wanted me to take my form away and submit it by SmartPhone, then got cross with me and didn’t believe me when I said I didn’t have a SmartPhone (Lady! I’m on the dole! And you want me to have a SmartPhone! Seriously!) and could I just see someone here because I had made a special trip to bring the form in, every single person that I have dealt with at Centrelink (and there have been many) has been nice, polite, very helpful and understanding. In fact, I asked to see the manager there one day and she was very pleasantly shocked when I thanked her for the great service her staff always provided.

I know why she was shocked
Being in the Centrelink office so many times and for hours sometimes, I have seen the upset, angry people who are some of their clients. I can’t blame them either. I trust I will not be in this system for very long. I know I will be fine.

But I am lucky. I have a safe home that I nearly own, a computer, a printer, a mobile phone, a bit of money in the bank and no kids to feed. I have to wonder: if someone like me who is intelligent, well educated, articulate, with all those resources is finding this Centrelink journey a tough one, how are all those who are not as fortunate going? No wonder so many people decide it’s all too hard and drop out of the system.

I didn’t mean this to be so long, but I was asked to write my story, in the hope that it builds a picture of the real people on Centrelink, who are not lazy dole bludgers and deserve a decent go.

I still say thank goodness we have the dole here in Australia.
It’s a bit of a help. But you can’t live on it.