COVID-19 and the Social Security System

La Trobe social security legal expert Dr Darren O’Donovan investigates changes to Australia’s welfare provisions and provides a helpful guide for those lost in the system.

The sight of long queues outside Centrelink offices this week generated change at an unprecedented rate.

Within days of the COVID-19 crisis taking hold, Australia’s Federal Government rewrote many administrative burdens it had designed into the social security system. Amidst a decade-long drive for efficiency, their focus shifted towards generating budget savings through increasingly dense, conditional laws. In addition, staffing numbers drifted downwards, placing a greater onus on applicants to prove their need. This past week was a powerful reminder of how our social security system must always be approached: As a vital piece of national infrastructure.

Ensuring access to support

The first step every applicant needs to take is to create or log into your myGov account and hit the button marked ‘register an intent to claim’. If your claim is successful, your first payment will be backdated to when you registered. This key protection was restored to the social security system on Wednesday March 25, having been previously restricted by a 2018 law.

For those who struggled to apply this week – make sure to register or call Centrelink by Sunday March 29 and complete your claim by April 19. If approved, your payment will be backdated to Monday March 23.

After you have started your claim, new customers will need to verify their identity. From Monday afternoon, it became possible do this over the phone. Call 132 850. Do not attend a Centrelink office. In addition, Services Australia finally removed the employer separation form requirement from the online system, easing the process of claiming.

The rapid scramble to reset the system reflects just how far it had drifted from delivering accessible support. Technology and staffing were mobilised to deliver robodebt and other compliance projects, rather than to address the administrative burdens on applicants.

The anxious wait for support

If your claim is accepted, you will be paid at the current standard rate of payment. On Tuesday March 31, everyone receiving a social security payment will – without the need to call or visit Centrelink – get an additional one-off payment of $750.

Everyone – from landlords, to banks, to electricity companies – needs to appreciate immediate cash flow worries will persist. The core of the government’s stimulus, the fortnightly coronavirus supplement, is planned to be paid only from Monday April 27. Right now, many in our community are stretching their last payments or earnings further than ever before.

From April 27, the $550 supplement will be automatically added to the standard fortnightly payment for six months. You will get the full $550, even if you only receive $1 of a qualifying payment. Many La Trobe students’ entitlement to this supplement was in doubt until late Monday March 23. Following pressure from the Opposition, the Government promised to extend the fortnightly supplement to those receiving student support such as Austudy and youth allowance by regulation.

These tips were valid on the date of publication, March 27 2020

Rising to the challenge

There is still much to do – including for members of our own La Trobe community.

There’s a potential income cliff affecting those who just fail the current partner income test of $48,000, disentitling them to support. Those on temporary visas, New Zealanders who do not hold a Permanent Residence Visa and asylum seekers on bridging visas currently still cannot access welfare. And not everyone who lost casual hours will get the coronavirus supplement.

Those on carer support payments and on the disability support pension are still excluded – many of them relied on casual hours which have vanished overnight, right as they face new challenges. Those struggling also face empty shelves as cheap options sell out due to panic buying. We have reported shortages of medical equipment. The list goes on.

The queues this week made visible the deep impacts the current crisis is having on those lacking adequate financial reserves or those who are homeless. Coronavirus challenges us to come together while staying apart. This challenging time shows us just how far we must go to ensure our social security system supports, protects and builds the community we need to face this pandemic.

La Trobe has committed to support students and staff during the COVID-19 crisis. Student Wellbeing and Financial Counselling Services are also available online and by phone. You can also donate to La Trobe's Student Crisis Appeal.

Media are welcome to re-publish this article with attribution to Dr Darren O’Donovan, La Trobe University Law School.

Read more COVID-19 opinions and expertise from La Trobe academics here.