Centrelink seizes $13,000 of jobseeker’s compensation after work for the dole injury

Mick Smart was forced into work for the dole six years ago. He was seriously injured and made incapable of working, became ineligible for Workcover, denied a disability pension, and then had thousands of dollars off compensation taken away. He has been condemned to a lifetime of poverty. This is how Centrelink has and continues to treat thousands of Australians. Luke Henriques-Gomes writes about Mick’s case (30 August 2022 The Guardian). The exposure of abuses like this can help to put an end to them and is in the public interest. The Pen wants to help by passing on Mick’s story.

Centrelink seized $13,000 in compensation paid to a jobseeker injured on the federal government’s own work for the dole program.

Mick Smart, 36, of Gippsland in Victoria, said he was never contacted by government officials to investigate the 2016 incident he said “destroyed” his life and left him battling to get on to the disability support pension.

The first time he heard from the government was last year when he learned Centrelink would take $13,000 from a settlement he finally received, five years after he was injured. The compensation meant he was no longer eligible for the jobseeker benefits after the injury in 2016, Centrelink said, and he therefore had to repay them.

“They [the government] sent me there, forced me to do manual labour, treated me like trash, and took whatever I got out of it out as part of compensation,” Smart said. “They left me without any support, no apology, no acknowledgement, nothing.”

Smart was sent to work for the dole under the welfare and privatised job services system, which sees millions of dollars paid each year to outsourced providers running various welfare-to-work programs..

The federal government will spend $150m on work for the dole over the next four years, paying job agencies and non-profit work for the dole providers a $500 fee for each participant.

Work for the dole participants get a $20 a fortnight “supplement” on top of their jobseeker payments for working up to 25 hours a week.

In 2016 Smart was made to work for the dole at a non-profit animal sanctuary near Newcastle, New South Wales.

He said he was required to move wheelbarrows up and down the property, dig trenches, clear bush, and undertake other manual tasks.

Smart said in his first week on the site he fell from a retaining wall while pulling weeds unsupervised. He landed awkwardly on some rocks and hurt his back. He then exacerbated the injury lifting a wheelbarrow the next week. Smart had suffered a minor injury to his back in 2009 from which he made a full recovery at the time.

Since the 2016 fall, Smart said he has experienced chronic pain in his neck and back, which is also believed to have caused a gastroenterological condition. He was also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I’m a shadow of my former self,” Smart said. “I went from being to a fit and healthy 30-year-old to an agoraphobe who can’t handle stress and has no social life.”

Smart said last year his lawyers and the non-profit reached a $100,000 out-of-court settlement. The non-profit, which is no longer registered, could not be reached for comment.

Photo by Chris Hopkins/The Guardian: Due to the nature of his spinal injury, Mick Smart sleeps alone

Of the $100,000, Smart received $25,000 – all that was left after legal fees and deductions for Medicare and Centrelink.

He said in July last year he received a letter from Centrelink he described as a “kick in the teeth”.

It said: “We have been advised that you are entitled to a lump sum compensation payment of $100,000.

“As a result, we have calculated that you have a preclusion period that starts on 25 February 2016 and ends on 18 January 2017. You have already received $13,288.66 in Centrelink payments in this period and it must be repaid.”

Centrelink, which could potentially have applied a “special circumstances” waiver, claimed the funds directly out of his settlement. The power to do so is explained in the social security guide, which states the federal government believes the “primary responsibility” for supporting people who can’t work due to a “compensable illness or injury” rests with the relevant state or territory compensation schemes rather than the social security system.

Smart, who was not participating in paid employment but rather the federal government’s own work for the dole program, said he was told he was not eligible for work cover.

“It’s cost the life of an 18-year-old and my quality of life,” Smart said of work for the dole and referring to the death of Joshua Park-Fing in 2016.

“It’s a dangerous program. It should be stopped.

“If there is a position that people can be placed into, they should be paid to do it. That is what employment services should be about.”

In 2018, Smart told a Senate inquiry his injury had been “catastrophic” to his life.

The system is broken, ultimately that’s the main issue

He said he was never contacted by the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations to investigate what occurred.

The Department of Employment and Workplace Relations did not respond by deadline.

Smart’s job agency at the time of the injury, Max Solutions, told Smart’s lawyers it was not responsible for what occurred. It said it was not the organisation required to conduct a risk assessment and that another job agency was the “lead provider” for Smart’s work for the dole activity.

Smart said last year’s out-of-court settlement was between him and the non-profit animal sanctuary. Guardian Australia does not suggest Max Solutions was liable for Smart’s injuries.

Max Solutions said it could not comment on an individual case due to the “contractual requirements of the Australia government, the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) and its Australian Privacy Principles”.

Smart is currently surviving on the sub-poverty-line jobseeker payment and the income of his partner, Marnie.

His application for the disability support pension was recently denied. He’s been overwhelmed trying to gather the necessary reports in a regional area where it is tough to get an appointment to see a specialist.

Photo by Chris Hopkins/The Guardian: Mick Smart with his girlfriend Marnie

In rejecting his claim, Centrelink found some of Smart’s conditions were not “permanent”, as is required for a successful disability pension claim.

Yet he has been unable to get an exemption from mutual obligations because his doctors argue his conditions are permanent and the system only allows a reprieve for people for temporary conditions.

So Smart is required to apply for jobs he likely couldn’t do and attend appointments with a job agency which can do little to help him but that still gets a payment while he’s on its books.

Hank Jongen, a Services Australia’s spokesman, said the agency understood Smart had been “dealing with some extremely challenging circumstances” and it had “reached out to assist him”.

“We apply decisions under the policy set down in Social Security legislation,” Jongen said.

“If people don’t agree with a decision we’ve made, whether in relation to a claim or how we have assessed a compensation payment, there are review options available.”

Smart is appealing Centrelink’s decision to deny him the pension.

“The system is broken, ultimately that’s the main issue,” Smart said.

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