University of Wollongong students waiting for their Youth Allowance or Austudy claims to be approved are worried about how they will afford their next meal.
Some students said they were relying on their parents to survive and pay rent.
Students who spoke to Fairfax Media all lodged their claims in mid to late February and were given "estimated completion” dates of late-March. They aren’t alone, a post on a university forum about the issue attracted more than 100 comments from frustrated students.
On May 11, they were still waiting for their payments to be processed, with Centrelink unable to tell them how far their claims had progressed.
However, following a query lodged by Fairfax Media to the Department of Human Services, the names and client reference numbers of students interviewed were requested.
The students’ details were passed on with permission, and within hours they were contacted by Centrelink to have their claim sorted due to “media interference”, a student said.
“The Department of Human Services has extended an offer to contact these students to discuss their concerns and provide appropriate support,” Department of Human Services General Manager Hank Jongen said.
“We work hard to process student claims as quickly as possible. Some complex claims can take longer and we understand this can be frustrating.”
Mr Jongen said as of April 30, Austudy claims were being processed in an average of 14 days, while Youth Allowance claims were taking an average of 20 days.
“This is an improvement compared to the previous financial year,” he said.
“Students can be assured that all claims will be processed and payments will be backdated to the date the student lodged their completed claim.
“The department prioritises claims for people experiencing financial hardship and encourages anyone in these circumstances to contact us.”
Former Ulladulla High School student Isabelle Gadaleta was one of those waiting for an outcome after she moved to Wollongong to study social science. She has had to rely on her parents to keep a roof over her head since she moved away from home in February.
She lodged a claim for Youth Allowance on February 14.
“It’s been about 12 weeks of getting messages saying my claim is being processed, but nothing else has happened,” she said.
“Every time I go in they say they can't really help me out and give me a phone number to ring. When you ring the number, they tell you to check online again. On the online app, it isn't saying anything else other than approved.
“Mum and Dad have been having to help me out a bit, but only at a bare minimum. I literally have zero money. If I didn't save up last year, I would have had nothing now.”
Following queries from Fairfax Media, Miss Gadaleta was contacted and told she needed to complete more paperwork – something they could have told her 12 weeks earlier.
Miss Gadaleta, who pays $180 a week in rent, said she could not go on “much longer without Centrelink”.
“I’ve got nothing in my [bank] account now and it’s scary,” she said.
“I'm coming home for a month in the break just so I can work to get money.”
Maddy Telford, who is studying a Bachelor of Business, said she applied for Youth Allowance at the end of February and was given an estimated completion date of March 27.
Attempts to find out where her claim was up to have been unsuccessful and two months later she is still without an answer, or payments.
“I haven’t received any messages of progression since March 28. I have had to have money transferred from my parents to pay for all of my rent, which they can hardly afford to spare,” Miss Telford said.
On Monday, May 14, Miss Telford was told by Centrelink her claim had been processed, and would be paid within 24 hours.
“I received a phone call this afternoon telling me that my claim had been processed and how much I were to receive, as well as the amount I would be back paid from when I started my studies. I checked my online account and it told me that the payments will come through tomorrow,” she said.
Miss Telford is almost four hours from family in Wagga Wagga, where she completed high school.
Trent Clarke is studying at the University of Wollongong College and is in a similar situation, telling Fairfax Media the “$3 in my bank doesn’t cut it”.
He lodged his claim on February 26 and has been struggling to make ends meet, working minimal hours at Dominos when he can.
“The money side is a little harsh as I can’t work all my normal shifts when I’m at uni,” Mr Clarke said.
“I only get one to two shifts a week now if I’m lucky; this week I’m not getting anything at all which is $0 to me. The student youth allowance claim was suppose to go through by the 9th of April, and there is still nothing and it’s May.”
Having been given the runaround by Centrelink, Mr Clarke was frustrated.
“A few times they have told me stuff hadn’t been submitted properly,” he said.
“Just recently, they said they would contact me directly via my phone within the next couple of days and I still haven’t heard from them since Monday [four days ago] when I went to Centrelink myself.
“I went there this week to put through an urgent claim and then a customer complaint letter.”
His claim was accepted on May 14 and he was paid on May 15.
Kirsten Brook, who graduated from Shoalhaven Anglican School in 2012, is in the same boat as hundreds of other students waiting for Youth Allowance.
She said she submitted her claim in early February, only to be told in early May that her “application hasn’t been touched”.
“I went into Centrelink the other day and waited for an hour to be told that essentially my application hasn’t been touched by anyone at Centrelink,” Miss Brook said.
“They apologised and wrote a note on it saying ‘to process as soon as possible’, but that’s probably not going to accomplish anything. They told me to wait at least another seven days and see if it approves.”
Miss Brook, who is studying for her Masters of Education, said the workload was “hectic”.
“I’m having to work at my bar job as much as I can to make my rent, which because of a change of living circumstances recently is $300 a week,” she said.
“I’ve been picking up as many shifts as I can, but I’m really struggling to keep up with uni as well as the rent.
“For my degree I have to complete prac, where I work at a school teaching. I have a three-week block of unpaid teaching work coming up that I have to take time off work to prepare for it and complete it.
“I don’t know how I’m going to support myself during this because I’ve already spent my savings over the past couple of months.”
All four students said they had sometimes waited for hours on hold to Centrelink trying to find out how far their claims had progressed. However, Mr Jongen said the average call waiting time was “around 16 minutes” this financial year.
“The department has a range of initiatives under way to reduce call wait times and we are already seeing the benefits of this work,” he said.
“More callers are getting through the first time they ring and there has been a substantial reduction in busy signals.”