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Firefighter’s Centrelink struggle leaves him cut off for weeks: ‘Stuck in limbo’

Andrew Burt tried for weeks to access assistance from Centrelink only to be hung up on or left on hold for hours.

A volunteer firefighter has been left unable to afford medication and struggling to buy groceries after blown-out Centrelink call wait times meant he was unable to contact the government service for more than a month.

Queensland resident Andrew Burt had been trying to get through to Centrelink since the start of February, only to be hung up on and left waiting for hours at a time.

Andrew lives in Goranba in Queensland’s Western Downs region. That’s about 80 kilometres - or nearly an hour’s drive - from the nearest Centrelink office in Dalby, so he’s been unable to speak to anyone in person.

Andrew Burt, Centrelink call wait times
Andrew Burt said he was unable to call Centrelink for weeks and kept getting hung up on. (Source: Supplied/Getty)

Do you have a Centrelink story to share? Contact tamika.seeto@yahooinc.com

“There’s no public transport. The only thing we have is phones and internet and nothing helps,” Andrew told Yahoo Finance.

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“I’ve been stuck in limbo for six weeks with no income, getting further and further in debt because everything is being deferred.”

The 50-year-old lodged a claim for JobSeeker payments at the end of January after a number of traumatic events from recent fires left him burnt out and unable to work in his full-time job. He was previously receiving Disaster Recovery Payments but this has now ended.

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Andrew, who is a father of six, has been a volunteer at the rural fire brigade in Tara for the past 15 years and working full-time in a metal fabrication role for the past four years.

“Not being able to get through for basic essential needs is breaking me even more. I was already broken with work,” Andrew said.

While struggling to talk to someone about his Centrelink application, Andrew said he and his family had been falling behind on bills and he had been left stressed and unable to afford his medication for more than a month.

“We’re about $2,000 behind on our mortgage repayments and another $1,000 behind on a personal loan,” he said.

Andrew still has two teenagers living at home and said he and his wife, who is doing a traineeship, were struggling to afford groceries and everyday essentials.

“We’re struggling and we’ve had to borrow money off family,” he said. “My wife has had to take out loans to make ends meet. We’re going further and further backwards."

Centrelink apologises

After Yahoo Finance contacted Services Australia about Andrew’s case, the agency contacted him directly and processed his claim the next day.

Andrew said it was the one phone call he’d been trying, unsuccessfully, to make for weeks.

Around 56 per cent of the 22.4 million calls to Centrelink in the six months to December 31 were answered and handled. Over that same time, just over 7.4 million calls were met with a congestion message and 2.3 million calls were terminated by a customer.

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Services Australia general manager Hank Jongen apologised to those facing long wait times.

“Unfortunately, our phone wait times are longer than we’d like and we sincerely apologise to people who are waiting longer than they should,” Jongen told Yahoo Finance.

“While we can’t comment on individual cases, we are working directly with the customer to ensure they are getting the support they are eligible for.”

Jongen encouraged people to “try again”, saying people were getting through to Centrelink and staff were working hard to answer calls. The agency recently hired 3,000 new staff to help process claims and take calls.

“By April, we expect to see positive impacts on claim-processing times and call wait times as these staff become fully trained,” Jongen said.

If you're feeling overwhelmed and need help dealing with financial stress, you can contact free advice and counselling from the National Debt Helpline. You can call 1800 007 007 between 9.30am and 4.30pm Monday to Friday.