Welfare penalties paused after new Workforce Australia app struggles to cope

by Luke Henriques-Gomes
Welfare recipients say they have been unable to log on to the new app to log job search efforts required to maintain their benefits

The Albanese government has extended a 30-day pause on welfare payment suspensions to thousands of jobseekers with disability who risked having their benefits stopped due to the trouble-plagued Workforce Australia rollout.

Five days after the launch of the successor to the much-maligned Jobactive scheme, welfare recipients have told Guardian Australia they are still having trouble logging into the application used to log job search efforts and complete other necessary mutual obligations tasks.

More than 750,000 jobseekers are on the new Workforce Australia system – with its contentious “points-based” mutual obligations rules – but thousands more on the Disability Employment Services (Des) program also need to use the same app to report their activities so their payments are not stopped.

Melissa Fisher, 40, an Adelaide jobseeker on the Des program said on Friday she was getting persistent error messages when she tried to log in or navigate the app.

Fisher, who lives with a disability, needs to upload six job applications into the app by next Friday or she is at risk of having her payments suspended.

A video of her trying to navigate the system shows a repeated “500 internal server error”. She has been unable to upload the screenshots of the job applications she has filed.

Fisher’s app later changed without notice to suggest she did not need to log any applications, but she’s received no communication from her job agency or the department about whether this is correct.

“I’ll be honest, I’m extremely stressed about it,” Fisher said. “Only because I’ve had my payment suspended before, which wasn’t my fault. If my payment’s suspended, it means missing rent, missing electricity payments.”

Another jobseeker, Naomi Thompson, 31, also shared screenshots of the same error page time-stamped to Friday 8 July.

Thompson said her job search obligation requirements had also changed without notice on Friday, causing further confusion.

Another jobseeker said they had been unable to log into the app, while across social media – in Facebook groups used by welfare recipients, for example – there are numerous reports of similar problems.

While compliance action has been suspended for 30 days in Workforce Australia, Des participants like Thompson and Fisher had not been spared under the government’s plans, despite pleas from advocacy organisations.

On Friday night, the government announced it would extend the reprieve to Des jobseekers, amid the technical problems with the new system.

The social services minister, Amanda Rishworth, said the government “did not want jobseekers with disability accessing Disability Employment Services to be disadvantaged by the introduction of Workforce Australia”.

“There were more than 70,000 people with disability that may have been disproportionately impacted if these changes were not made by being cut off from their income support payments,” she said. “The changes have been made to be consistent with Workforce Australia. An Albanese Labor government does not want people to be confused by these changes.”

Jobseekers in the Des program will not be subjected to mutual obligations or receive “demerit points” – which can cause further sanctions – until 1 August.

A department of social services spokesperson acknowledged the new system had caused “some confusion for Des participants”.

Organisations including the Australian Council of Social Service, Anglicare, the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union and the Antipoverty Centre are still calling for a 90-day suspension to mutual obligations across all programs.

The union’s Daniel Levy said people had been left “confused and distressed by a system that often doesn’t load and is unwieldy to use when it is”.

Jay Coonan, an Antipoverty Centre spokesperson, described the week as like “something out of [the satirical TV show] Utopia”, noting his group had been warning about the new system for “longer than the minister has been in his portfolio”.

Earlier this year, Labor supported the Morrison government’s legislation that established the new system. The new employment minister, Tony Burke, later said by the time the Labor government had been formed it was “too late” to abandon.

Greens senator Janet Rice said the new system was “already causing people harm and stress”, and that the rollout has been an “unmitigated disaster with one IT issue after another”.

Meanwhile, other jobseekers have this week complained of being connected with a new job agency situated a long distance from where they live. Some job agencies have lost their contracts under the new system while others have joined the system or expanded their reach.

The Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, which administers the Workforce Australia program and its associated online portal and app, defended the rollout.

A spokesperson said there were intermittent technical issues this afternoon, “potentially affecting between 1,800 to 2,500 individual participants or 0.35% of the total cohort”.

“We apologise for any inconvenience to users. These intermittent issues were fully resolved by 3.15pm.”

The spokesperson said the system had “performed well throughout the week apart from a small number of short-lived issues”, citing 500,000 logins.

“Any technical issues will not impact payments for participants, noting transition arrangements are in place,” the spokesperson said.