Disability pensioners are turning to lawyers to fight for access to the JobSeeker payment, as recipients reveal they have had to skip meals and even stop taking medication during the pandemic.
Those who successfully manage to switch could stand to benefit from a few extra hundred dollars a fortnight.
But they’re being warned against the move.
The long-term consequences of swapping from disability pension to JobSeeker would be “disastrous”, warns Australia’s peak body for community legal services, Economic Justice Australia (EJA).
The concerns come after the Morrison government confirmed the higher welfare rate is only temporary and would again be dropped back to roughly $40 a day later this year.
On Monday, the PM did shutdown speculation that he may consider cutting the payment as early as June. The government has budgeted for the program to cover six million workers for six months.
But disability pension (DSP) recipients have been excluded from receiving the extra $550 fortnightly Coronavirus Supplement that is being given to Australians on the JobSeeker, Youth Allowance or Austudy payments.
With about half of Australia’s population of people with a disability already living in poverty, financial pressure during the pandemic is “tipping them over the edge”, said Jeff Smith, chief executive of People with Disability Australia.
“Overwhelmingly, people with disability have told us that they are facing significantly increased expenses during this public health crisis,” Mr Smith told The New Daily.
“These extra costs relate to extra delivery costs, changes to disability supports and availability of essential equipment and supplies.”
Skimping on medication to get by
Relying solely on the Disability Support Pension (DSP) can be particularly difficult for those recipients not backed by the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
Scarlett Franks, a survivor of childhood trauma, sometimes has to go without prescribed chronic pain medication because there is not enough money left in the DSP, her only source of income.
The 26-year-old, who suffers from chronic neuropathic vaginal pain and chronic pelvic pain, said she can’t afford to keep putting the cost of two non-subsidised prescriptions on her credit card.
At one point she racked up about $20,000 in debt to cover the medication costs.
Ms Franks said she often has little choice but to endure the “debilitating” effects.
I am trying to finish my education and sometimes that pain is so debilitating that I can’t study.’’
A spokesperson for Social Services Minister Anne Ruston has previously said people on DSP were already receiving the “highest rate of support in the system” to offset the fact they weren’t expected to look for work.
But Ms Franks has had to look for work after her research assistant job was put on hold due to the coronavirus.
She was not the only DSP recipient trying to find a job.
“I’m part of this community of complex trauma survivors on a DSP who works to try and supplement that inadequate pension,” she said.
“And a lot of us have lost that work now for the same reasons that the people now going on the JobSeeker have lost it.”
Already, there are “very few positions that offer the kind of flexibility that people with disabilities need”, and the coronavirus pandemic has made finding a job all the more difficult, Ms Franks said.
The consequences of switching to JobSeeker
As the peak body for community legal services in Australia, EJA said its member centres are receiving calls from disability pensioners wanting advice on their rights and help to swap over.
EJA chief executive Leanne Ho said clients are reporting “finding it very difficult, day-to-day, to survive”.
But she is advising pensioners to think about what they would lose in the long term.
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Some DSP recipients mistakingly think if they change to JobSeeker, their disability pension will merely be suspended, Ms Ho said.
“But it won’t actually be suspended in a way that means that they can get back on it. It will actually be cancelled. And they’ll also lose their pensioner concession card,” Ms Ho said.
“For some people, it’s a really difficult decision because they’re living day to day and if they’re really struggling to pay for food or medication, it’s really tempting.”
There are fears DSP recipients who jump to another payment may never be able to get back their pension if they change their mind.
“Over the years, the DSP eligibility rules have tightened, which makes it more and more difficult for people, even if they have very serious conditions, which means they can’t work,” Ms Ho said.
“We see people who really can’t work but they can’t receive a DSP because the rules are so strict.
“So, if those rules are tightened even further during this period, they may find that if they jump off DSP and try to get back on, the rules have changed, and they can’t actually get back.”