Centrelink users fume as service 'refuses to answer calls'

Customers are receiving automated messages before the line goes dead.

Aussies are growing increasingly frustrated with wait times for calls to Services Australia with some customers now complaining government staff "refuse to answer calls" at all.

The government service, which oversees Centrelink and Medicare, has come under heavy scrutiny due to increased reports of longer call wait times and unanswered calls, with the average time ballooning to more than 30 minutes in July and August. However, some say they wait much longer.

Last year it was revealed wait times increased from around four minutes during 2020-2021 to 14 minutes the following year. But the problem reached extraordinary heights in 2023 with staff shortages being blamed. There have also been processing delays despite a reduction in the number of calls made to the agency in 2023 with only 55 million, a steep decline from the 73 million made the previous year.

A long line outside a Centrelink office.
Services Australia has experienced extreme wait times and processing delays due to staff shortages. Source: Getty

Auto message fury: 'Refusing to answer calls'

While longer than usual wait times are a common complaint for Aussies relying on the service, and have been for some time, some now claim they're being hung up on before they even get a chance to be put through. "Services Australia now blatantly refusing to answer calls," one customer raged on X, formally Twitter, this week. And took aim at the "phone ID system that blocks people reattempting a call".

The irate customer shared the automated message he received before the line went dead. He did not reveal how long he'd been waiting.

"We know you've been trying to reach us," the robot said. "However, we are experiencing a high volume of calls at the moment and are unable to take your call. We apologise for the inconvenience. Thank you for calling. Goodbye," it concludes before it disconnects.

According to SBS, when a person calls Centrelink, they're asked to explain the purpose of their call in a few words. If a vague explanation is given, the call will reportedly hang up after a general automatic message. If customers call back on the same number, Centrelink's intelligence system will apparently identify them as a repeat-caller, acknowledge their attempts at contacting again and hang up once more.

It's understood the automated message isn't a new system, but longer wait times have meant more customers are being met with this response. Services Australia confirmed to Yahoo News Australia "our wait times are longer than we’d like at the moment".

"We’re sorry some people are waiting longer than they should be," a spokesperson said. "If our phone lines are congested, people may receive a message explaining our staff are busy. People experiencing vulnerability are prioritised in this case".

Aussies call out 'shocking' problem

Several other customers have expressed their dissatisfaction at their experience of calling Services Australia.

"Refusing and blocking calls. This isn't ok," another lamented on social media. While another called the situation "shocking". "Imagine someone in a crisis and then you get this response. I understand they're busy but refusing a call is not the right approach, they said.

Sadly, some Aussies feel let down by the government with one saying if you need to speak with someone, "you're on your own pretty much". "Staff shortages is not an excuse," they added. "You don't address the problem by blocking calls."

$228m solution to major blow out

In a Senate hearing last October it was revealed only about 60 per cent of calls to the agency are currently being answered within 15 minutes, with about nine million calls made per year directed to a non-human "congestion" voicemail message.

On average, about 3,000 Services Australia staff are answering phone calls to the agency’s 24-hour centre daily, with about 5,000 staff responsible for processing claims. About 6,500 staff are based in service centres nationwide.

Late last year, Government Services minister Bill Shorten announced an additional 3000 staff would be hired as part of a $228m injection to deal with call wait times. "The new staff will be critical to reducing call wait times, speeding up claim payments and giving Australians back some time in their busy lives," Shorten said at the time.

New staff recruited, Services Australia confirms

Services Australia confirmed these new staff will predominantly work on processing claims and answering calls.

"This recruitment is almost complete with the last of the new staff coming on board over the next fortnight," a spokesperson told Yahoo. "Around 1000 new staff started this week alone to help improve customer experience."

Aussies are being encouraged to go online where possible as this can help speed up the process. "We have around 10 million customer interactions on any given week, and 90 per cent of those are digital," Services Australia said.

with NCA Newswire

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