Dealing with Centrelink was possibly one of the hardest things I had to do in my life. When you get to the point where you need help from them you probably already have a number of stresses in your life such as job loss, relationship breakdown, health issues (physical or mental). It literally pushed me to the brink of suicide and I know I am not alone in those thoughts. If you have never had to deal with Centrelink, especially at a time of crisis, you won’t understand. It is not an easy process, many genuine claims get denied, over 20% of debts being issued are incorrect plus you usually wait on the phone over 1 hour if you’re lucky. You might also be cut off, or not be able to get through at all.
That sounds all doom and gloom. I’m not going to tell you I have a magic solution to make dealing with them easier. I do have some tips to make things go smoother, possibly get sorted sooner and have ample proof of what you have done so if you need to prove you don’t owe them money or that they were supposed to do something, you can and you can take it further if needed.
1.) Get a Centrelink notebook or file
Buy a notebook or create a file on your phone to record EVERYTHING you do with Centrelink. Every phone call including the time you rang, how long you are on hold, who you spoke to, what was discussed, the receipt/record number and how long the whole phone call from when you called to when you hung up was.
Do the same for every time you have to go into the office or deal with their employment agencies or they send you mail. Any contact with them, document it. My preference and recommendation is to upload everything to a DropBox folder (www.dropbox.com) it is free for up to 2G of storage.
So, document everything yourself, plus for anything they send you if it is sent through MyGov, download it and upload a copy to your Dropbox folder, plus if you want a hard copy, print one.
It might seem like overkill but I had them lose my divorce certificate 3 times, at one point they tried to tell me my second daughter was not mine (despite her being a few years old and registered since birth!) plus they lost numerous other forms I handed in. Cover yourself and document everything!
If you are uploading documents to MyGov or anything similar, you can screen record yourself doing it. This way, if it crashes or later doesn’t show up even through you uploaded it, you have proof you did it. If you have a Mac you can use QuickTimePlayer, click on File then select New Screen Recording and click to record. Upload this to your DropBox folder and keep a copy on your computer. Alternatively, you can use VLC which many computers come with.
2.) Dealing with Centrelink via phone
Try to remain calm. I know, it is next to impossible. However, Centrelink staff are people. They are also dealing with an outdated system which is so large and the call centre staff often aren’t experienced in what you need help with. The whole system needs an overhaul and they need better training. As with all government departments (in my experience), they don’t spend the money or fix things like this which would actually help, they spend it elsewhere, but that is a whole different article! Your anger/frustration should be at Centrelink/the government, not the person on the other end of the phone (despite how incompetent they may seem to you, it could be their first day).
As hard as it is, try to remain calm. Speak in an even tone (a happy one if you can muster it, I always got more help and even had staff call me back to help, which they technically weren’t supposed to do when I was cheerful and extremely grateful. It was not easy!)
If you have to call them, take a deep breath. Write down what you need to ask on a piece of paper so you have it in front of you. Take notes if you need to while speaking to them (for example, if you think of a question but need to hear the rest of whatever they are saying first and you don’t want to forget the question, scribble it quickly on paper and ask them to repeat anything you missed if you need).
Thank them for their help in a nice tone, even if you don’t feel like it. Be polite and appreciative even if you feel like you want to punch the phone, yell or scream. To be clear, while I tried to be positive and polite, I was not 100% successful at doing it but when I was, I got more help and things got sorted. In fact, they became super helpful and went out of their way to get back to me or assist as much as possible.
Here is how I did phone calls with Centrelink:
– Wrote down the questions I had/information I needed
– Called first thing in the morning as the wait time was not as long (in theory!)
– Took a deep breath
– When I called, I put my phone on speaker and had tasks I could complete while waiting (because we all know it will be at least an hour, if not 2 before you get through). This included folding clothes, ironing, cleaning the kitchen, responding to emails, applying for jobs etc. Anything that did not require noise so I could hear my phone when someone picked up.
– When they do pick up, ask if you can record the call. You can download phone apps that allow you to do that but you will need your phone on speaker the whole time or have the phone next to your computer or another device to record that way if you prefer. You legally need the other persons’ permission to record a phone call. Do not record without asking and make sure you say again, once you have hit record, something like ‘Ok, I am recording now, is that ok?” and they should say yes, then it is all fine.
– Be polite and upbeat if possible. I generally said something along the lines of “Hi xyz (whatever their name was), thanks so much for answering, you must be having a full on day! (or something similar, basically acknowledging their job can be hard and you sympathise with them). Is it ok with your if I record this phone call for my records please, I don’t want to forget or get mixed up and it saves me having to call back?” (if they say yes, hit record and say “Ok, I am recording now”, or “Thanks for letting me record”).
Next, say “I was just wondering if you could please help me with ……?” (and ask your question). Be polite, ask them to repeat parts you don’t quite understand, speak calmly and slowly if you need to and ask them to slow down if you need.
Once you have the information you need, thank them for their time and get the receipt number for you personal records (more on keeping records in a minute). I often said “Oh, thanks so much, you really helped. Have a great day!” or similar. If they couldn’t help, ask to be transferred to someone else (again, do it politely, don’t demand and yell). Repeat the process until you get the information and help you need.
Once the call has finished, save the recording and I uploaded it to a dropbox folder so I had a copy on my device and a copy online in case my phone broke or something.
The wording is gushy but if said genuinely, they respond so much better than when we are frustrated. I used to try to get myself in a good headspace, not angry, tried to remind myself they are people and their job is hard, they are not doing the wrong thing, the government/Centrelink are the problem, not the person I am talking to.
2.) In Office
I dreaded going into the office. It was often busy, understaffed and half the time I got referred to the phones or self-service. My local office lost my paperwork 3 times so I ended up going to an office which was further away but they were way more helpful and got things processed.
Do not let this discourage you. Take a deep breath, remain calm and the staff are usually more helpful.
Before you go, be prepared. Have your details ready – any forms you need completed, have them ready. Have your reference number out or memorised and any extra paperwork your forms might need such as id, pay slips etc. I also packed a drink bottle, snack and something to do such as a book to read or my phone.
I found as soon as they opened was the best time to go. I arranged for someone else to take my kids to school and got in there immediately so I was one of the first in line. If you have a specific appointment, get there before the appointment time to make sure you don’t miss it.
If you are handing paperwork in, you might be able to do it immediately instead of having to speak to someone at a desk. Be clear about what you are there for and the first staff member can usually assist a little. This could save you a lot of time.
While you are waiting, if you have to go to the bathroom or anything, let them know and be as quick as possible. Be patient, listen for your name try to keep yourself occupied.
When you get to speak to someone at a desk, be clear, calm, polite and cooperative. From my experience, they are as frustrated as you with the system and quite limited with what they can do. Again, ask if you can record it. Document everything, take notes while you are there, get a receipt number for your records and note down the time and date you were there, what was said etc.
The Centelink debt issues at the moment are a mess. 20% of the people who have been hit with debt do not owe it. That is a ridiculously high number. 1% is too many, but 20% is over the top and needs to be addressed!
If you get lumped with a Centrelink debt, first check your records to see if you do owe money or not. Next, ask them for all documentation on it and check it thoroughly.
If you do not owe the money, you can dispute it. They say it takes a few weeks, in my experience (which was before this debt fiasco) it took months, but eventually, it was sorted and I was back paid. It took a lot of back and forth, proof their records were wrong, proof I had provided accurate information and in the end, what got it reviewed is when I said I was going to the ombudsmen because dealing with them had made me suicidal. It should never, ever get to that point, but for many it does. You are dealing with them when you need help the most and debt can be the straw that breaks the camels back especially when you don’t actually owe money!
When dealing with them, be clear, be polite and know how much you can afford to repay if it ends up being you do have to repay because you were overpaid. Do not commit to more than you can afford, they have to take your circumstances into account. It is usually direct debited from your payments so you do not need to think about when or how to pay. They try to push for higher amounts to get it paid quicker. Do not agree to this. State what you can afford and they will eventually agree.
It is easy to get overpaid, for example if you don’t notify them your circumstances changed such as how much rent you are paying, if you got someone renting a room from you, if you partnered etc. Tell them asap everything so your payments can be adjusted accordingly. Keep accurate records of what you tell them and make sure your payments are updated so you do not get overpaid.
However, as I said, if you are one of the 20% lumped with debt you don’t owe, fight it!
5.) Report correctly
It is up to you to make sure you report everything correctly to accurately reflect your relationship status, how many kids you have, any employment or payments etc. Once you have lodged your forms, check to make sure the right information has been added to your file. I have lost count of the number of times my paperwork was put into the system inaccurately and I had to chase it up, get it changed and had the proof they put it in wrong as I had copies of the original forms.
6.) Keep accurate records yourself
Any form you have to give Centrelink, keep a copy for yourself. As mentioned above, keep a notebook or file on all interactions with Centrelink, all forms, all conversations and get record numbers for everything you do. This will help you immensely should anything bad happen and you need to dispute anything with them.
It is a lot of work keeping all the records, it will benefit you in the long run.
Centrelink are being investigated about the debt issues, however, aside from that, if you have issues with them which are not resolved and you have pushed for reviews, gone through the process and things are still not done correctly, you can report them to the ombudsmen here. It might seem useless and it will take a long time, but they have to respond and do something about it.
What tips do you have for dealing with Centrelink?
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