February 19, 2014

My Unemployment Experience [Guest Post from Cathy]

When I was in my early twenties, I went to university and got an Arts degree. I had a lot of fun and spent much time at the uni bar … and I learned a lot of things there, as well as in lecture theatres. When I finished my Honours degree, I found it difficult to gain full time employment, with my focus on philosophy and literature. So, I took temporary jobs, and then went to London for a year and lived quite well and variously doing temp work for an agency. Before I left Australia, I had sat for the Public Service examination, and lo and behold, I was offered a JOB in the APS!!!

I toddled back to Australia, and started work. I am not sure if I was more bored or frustrated. But, hey, it was a job. I left that job for a while and worked elsewhere. Then I went back. As one does, in the APS, I climbed the ladder and got to the point where the amount of my tax per fortnight surprised me, as it was so close to the money I took home. The work also became more interesting and I enjoyed it.

Then … drum roll … I got pregnant. I planned to go back to work after my baby came, but when that happened, I just couldn't do it. Leave him in child care at 8 am and pick him up at 6 pm, and be doing the washing and cleaning on the weekends? That was not what I wanted as a mother, and, by that time, I was also a single mother.

So, I took a redundancy package. And, that was the end of my full-time employment.

While I stayed at home and looked after my baby. I also completed a law degree part-time, because I wanted to make myself more employable. Ha!

I think I got one interview. And, that was a disaster.

Was I too old? Was I too female? Did being a SAHM count against me? I still don't know the answers, and of course, no potential employer is going to tell me.

I started volunteering. I had a great time, loved the work, and in the end, this led to a job offer. I had to leave my state, settle down in a place I had never been before, transfer my son to a new school, and get used to a rather different climate.

Again, I loved the work. It was interesting, varied, challenging, and I was very good at it. But, it was part-time.

This kept me tied to the ridiculous social security law administered by Centrelink and other government departments. Despite working more hours than the legislation demanded, I was still required to attend silly interviews, where the Centrelink worker asked if I was still working, and I said that yes, I was, and we then talked about the weather until it seemed that the correct amount of government time had been wasted and I could then go back to work.

Part-time work also kept me poor. Working part-time, you have the same obligations as a full-time worker. You still have to put meals on the table, buy clothes, pay for transport costs, kick in for school fees, and so on. But, you don't have the same amount of money. I mention this not to complain, as I did love the work, but as a single woman, part-time work doesn't allow you to save for your future.

Well, the job was getting stale after about 3 years. I had no prospects of advance in the organisation, or in the city. I needed a change.

I resigned, grabbed my son, and we travelled round the world on part of the proceeds from selling the house.

Looking back, now, I wonder if either of those decisions were sensible. Possibly not, but I didn't know then what I know now.

Because, since then, I have been almost unemployable.

We returned to Australia, and moved state to a more populous area. After a couple of years of looking for work in a variety of areas, I decided to go back to study yet again. I did a teaching degree. I did well in the classroom in my practicums, and I loved it. After graduating, I looked for work in my state … I looked for work in Tasmania … I looked for work in WA … I looked for work in the NT.

I got 6 weeks work in schools as a substitute teacher over 12 months.

Being unemployed is hard work. It is frustrating, sad, boring, dull, and it saps your confidence. Sending off hundreds of applications and not even getting an acknowledgment, let alone an interview, is tough. I looked for work as a teacher, and in any areas related to my education and experience. Nothing.

I was sick of sitting at my computer all day looking for work. I really wanted my son to see me working. I really wanted to work.

So, I came up with a plan. I would move to a cheaper place, and I would open a business. Again, looking back with hindsight, I am not sure if this was an insane decision or not.

I talked to Centrelink about my plans. I was assured that they supported my decision, and that I would continue to receive payments until my business made a certain amount of profit. They seemed pleased that I was doing this, that I was being proactive.

Ha, bloody ha.

I arrived in my next location and started opening up the business. Within a fortnight, I had my first interview with the local Centrelink people. They said that, despite opening a business, I still had to look for X number of jobs per fortnight. As you can imagine, this was somewhat disconcerting, and I became rather emotional …

This was silly. I was putting in tens of thousands of dollars to make an effort to get me OFF Centrelink's books, and they told me that I still had to look for work, and if I was offered a job, I would have to take it. If I took a job, then my business would result in a huge loss financially for me.

It was too late to change my mind. I'd signed the lease, I'd paid a bucket load of money. I was committed to the shop. What saved me here from wasting the money I'd committed, was that the area I had moved to had (and has) very few jobs available.

I worked 10 to 12 hour days frequently during the week and had weekends off (mainly). I spent a fortune on rent and stock and furnishings. I did this in an area where people didn't have a lot to spend, and in an environment where many people were spending what money they did have shopping on the internet.

I continued to be required to attend interviews with Centrelink. Now, I will say here that Centrelink offices vary widely across the country. Brisbane, for example, generally has fantastic staff. Here it varies. I've been addressed by my last name alone … “Come this way, Smith” (although Smith is not my real last name). I have been for ONE interview with them over two years where I had to wait for less than an hour. Again, there seemed to be an expectation that the interviews lasted a particular amount of time after the essential questions had been asked and answered.

When my lease ran out, at the end of a year, I decided that to put more money in would not be sensible. I closed up with help from some friends and a few bottles of good wine.

A few regrets about the business not being a money-spinner … many more regrets about not having somewhere to be at 9 am, not working, not meeting people and making them happy, not going home pleasantly tired at the end of the day.

A year later and nothing. No jobs here for someone with my qualifications. Too many other unemployed people here for somewhere to take a risk with me. Still I have to attend pointless interviews with Centrelink and my JSP.

So, there is my history, and my whinge. Moving forward, what can be done?

The Centrelink legislation, the Social Security Act, is out of date, cumbersome, difficult to understand, and interpreted in different ways. Aside from the Act itself, there are two guides to implementing it: one is only available to Centrelink staff, the other is available on line, but few people know about it. Some Centrelink staff just use their own opinions, or prejudices to make decisions. The Act needs updating and simplifying.

New provisions need to be made to give people a fair go. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work. A couple on the Age Pension who own their own house, and have substantial other assets, live a very different life to a couple on the Age Pension who are paying rent.

A single parent on the Parenting Payment Single pension whose child is under 8 receives substantially more than the single parent of a child over that age. The difference for me is about $180 per fortnight. This is a lot. I can't understand the reasoning behind this decision: there is no point where the government can say that from age 8 up, children cost less. There is an argument to say that a high school aged child costs a heck of a lot. The fact is that kids DO cost money, and that their first 18 years are extremely important, and they don't need to bear the burden of poverty when it can be alleviated with comparatively little funding.

We hear politicians talk about education and how important it is. We hear about Gonski reforms to put more money into schools. As a mother and a teacher, I support better funding for schools, of course I do. But, if a parent, or a couple on NewStart Allowance, can't afford to pay for rent, power, food, clothes, water, and all the other expenses, then how much good are the Gonski reforms going to do? I raised this at a recent Centrelink interview and it was suggested that I send my son out to get a job. I replied that I would rather he worked at doing well in Year 12 and going to uni.

Single and coupled parents on NewStart Allowance, or Parenting Payment, will generally receive Family Tax Benefits A and B. Single people without kids receive just NewStart. This is $542 per fortnight for a single person. A quick search of a real estate site for accommodation in any major city will show very few places for rent under $200 per week. We can all do the maths here. After rent, there is $142 per fortnight left for food, clothes, transport, gas, electricity, water, etc. Sure, there is rent allowance, if you're eligible, but at $110 per fortnight, this doesn't help much.

Then, there are some payments which are available to people on very high incomes, like Family Tax Benefit. It's my belief that these payments need to be revisited. If you're on $100,000 per annum, you do not need to be supported by taxpayers earning less than that.
There are not nearly as many “dole bludgers” as the government (any government) would like you to believe. Most of us on NewStart, or Parenting Payment, are good people, good parents, who are bringing up our children to be good tax payers. Most of us would love to have a job, especially a full-time job, and most of us would love to celebrate a separation from Centrelink.

Social security legislation in Australia needs a wholesale review and a fairer system to ensure that Australians are given a fair go, and the ability to live their lives and raise their children with dignity.

All readers are encouraged to share their experiences of unemployment, job searching, interviews, and anything else that fits in with this blog. Please email me at:  50shadesofunemployment@gmail.com

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  1. HI Cathy,

    thanks so much for sharing your story. It's elegant, articulate and certainly not a whinge. Nothing wrong with any of us in writing a critical review of our personal experience with unemployment. It was great to hear your views on social security law and act I totally agree with you regarding a complete overhaul of this. What we need are politicians with enough knowledge and understanding of all of the issues we talk about, who are progressive thinking, not stuck in outdated ideological principles, who are courageous and capable of thinking outside the "dole bludger" myth.

    1. Cathy's piece underlines one of the many reasons why Australia's one-size-fits-all goverment "services" policies for the unemployed - are shamefully outdated. Meantime, it's no surprise that Job Services Australia agencies - generally seem to earn their "bread and butter" from questionable practice. And since these agencies are a separate entity from Centrelink, their ethics, standards, and "programs" are never called into question. Ironically, while outdated practices, and neanderthal organisational attitudes of JSPs go on unchecked - the only unfortunate group under constant close (and often debilitating) scrutiny, are their unemployed "clients". Too often, when I go along to my JSP, (regardless of my great quals, CV, experience, gorgeous personality! & application letter writing abilities etc) I am treated by JSP staff as if I am in fact some kind of low IQ, "dolebludging", work avoider.

  2. gosh how depressing, we have recently moved to a new state, and have been struggling to find work, we have nowhere near the qualifications you have - :( :(

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