Forcing Welfare Recipients To Attend In-Person Meetings During COVID Is Risking Their Health

People are calling for mutual obligation requirements to be put on hold as case numbers skyrocket.

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Welfare recipients have expressed concern that attending compulsory appointments in-person will pose a risk to their health during the Omicron outbreak.

Mutual obligation requirements apply to payments including JobSeeker and Youth Allowance, and more than a million people are on unemployment payments according to the Australian Council of Social Service. Under job plans, recipients must meet with their employment service provider, or risk financial penalties from demerits, to having payments cancelled altogether.

Mutual obligations were temporarily put on hold during the peak of lockdown in South Australia, NSW and Victoria last year. During Omicron, while some job agencies have been flexible with alternative arrangements like phone or video calls instead, others are pushing back and insisting on face-to-face meetings, according to The Guardian.

“We continue to receive reports from welfare recipients being forced out of their homes to perform pointless ‘mutual obligations’ that risk community transmission. This must stop,” said the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union on Tuesday. “Unwaged, underemployed and insecure workers must not be forced to expose themselves to risk of infection in order to engage with job agencies while Omicron runs rampant.”

Particularly of concern are people with disability, people with chronic illness, or who are immunocompromised, and simply existing on a low income — mortality rates due to COVID were found to be almost four times higher for people living in low socioeconomic groups compared to higher socioeconomic backgrounds, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

The concerns come after a push by advocacy groups to re-suspend broader mutual obligations, including tasks, activities and job interviews as Omicron case numbers continue to rise. “My partner has an autoimmune disorder, and is on immunosuppressant medication,” a 23-year-old told the Guardian, concerned about being forced to attend a physical group job coaching meeting.

“I think it’s absolutely insane that they’re sending people of any age, especially over 60, into these environments where you can’t possibly know the [infection] status of people,” said 62-year-old Lindy Saville to SBS about her compulsory volunteer hours.

Social Services Minister Anne Ruston replied to concerns by saying anyone who contracts COVID or has to isolate should seek an exemption from requirements.