Australia’s army of employment service providers tasked with pushing welfare recipients back into the workforce will have to make their face-to-face services available online and through Skype, as the government scrambles to rid its mutual obligation system of COVID-19 transmission risks.
In a testament to the now herculean logistical and technology challenges facing agencies like Centrelink, employment minister Michaelia Cash on Friday revealed a raft of activities that usually required mandatory personal attendance will be shunted online literally overnight.
Dubbed ‘jobactive’, the current network of providers numbers around 1700 and offers assistance to connect job seekers and employers as well as advice for people on how to start their own businesses.
The suddenness of the move to go to online delivery will be technology nightmare for services providers, who have so far been largely geared towards compelling welfare recipients to turn up to their offices to complete tasks like job hunting, CV writing and interviews to keep their payments.
It also means service providers will have to set-up online accounts for clients to allow them to dial-in, find ways of logging and checking online job searches and potentially find ways of proving remote technology to the unemployed who may not themselves have access to computers or the internet.
“The Government has announced a number of changes to mutual obligation requirements to reduce or eliminate the need for face-to-face contact, when requested by a job seeker or service provider,” Cash said in a statement.
“Job seekers will have the option to request that face-to-face meetings with their job service providers take place over the phone or via an online channel such as Skype.”
A major issue with the online switch is that many of the activities employment service providers set for their clients have essentially been designed to happen on premises, frequently in groups as a disincentive to just being able to stay at home and collect the dole.
In practical terms, physical attendance also acted to weed out welfare claimants who may previously have had regular cash jobs but claimed the dole anyway.
That model is now effectively dead for the time being – most likely at least six months.
At the same time Centrelink is rapidly gearing up for a flood of claims from people who will lose employment as COVID-19 shutters large parts of the economy ranging from transport, travel and tourism to major events and entertainment.
In some respects the changes for job seekers are somewhat of a necessary façade; the government knows employment demand will dry up overnight but at the same time cannot suspend mutual obligation requirement because it would put service providers out of business.
Another issue is that many employment services are provided by not-for-profits and charities who have Spartan technology budgets and are unlikely to have spare cash for new kit, software or staff training on how to use various technologies.
In many respects, service providers and their clients will likely just have to muddle through the current situation until the pandemic passes and bigger policy decisions are made.
A major question is whether a mutual obligation system is even tenable in the event of a recession and major labour shedding, not just in terms of the scale of the challenge for service providers but the impact on employers.
Employer groups have for years criticised compulsory quotas for job applications in some regions of high unemployment because they can add significant costs to businesses to process and respond to.
Cash, on Friday dialled-back the tempo on that requirement, not doubt to the relief of employers and job seekers alike.
“Job Plans will be adjusted to a default requirement of four job searches a month (or fewer at provider discretion) to reflect the softening labour conditions,” Cash said, adding that work for the dole and other group activities, as well as job fairs and “other large events” will be suspended.