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Centrelink Office Attack

Centrelink Office Attack on Today Tonight

Details about Kerry Pendergast's legal fight with Centrelink after being found guilty of common assault against a Centrelink office worker.

Also includes Judy Lorbek's legal battle against Centrelink fraud.

Video: Centrelink Office Attack on Today Tonight - Kerry Pendergast

Transcription

News Reader: Welfare is an essential service for millions of Australians, but the growing burden on our system is also taking its toll. A tensions so great it’s led to some staff being attacked at suburban branches where customers are fed up with the delays and the mistakes. Damien Hanson has more.

Kerry Pendergast: “I’ve become angry, I’ve become frustrated, I’ve gotten up to leave, then I snapped… Then all of a sudden, bang, and I’m in jail… It’s just papers, numbers and that’s it”

Damien Hanson: Like 7.1 million Australians, Kerry Pendergast has been a Centrelink customer and a very unhappy one at that.

Kerry Pendergast: They need to learn how to do customer service.

Damien Hanson: The single mother of two teenagers, one with autism, aggravated a debilitating back injury at work five months ago. Since then she’s been claiming a work cover benefit.

Kerry Pendergast: When I went in there on the day they said my medical certificate had run out which I thought it had run out by about four days, they informed me that it had been run out for over a month.

Damien Hanson: She was told her claim wouldn’t proceed.

Kerry Pendergast: I said “can I speak to the manager,” the team leader came over and I copped the same thing; “nope, you don’t have the correct paperwork, nope, not until you get the right one, nope, that’s it!”

Damien Hanson: Previously Kerry’s outdated certificate had been accepted, and after trying to resolve the issue with the manager she eventually lost the argument and her temper.

Kerry Pendergast: That’s just a conglomeration of many different facets on that day that made this happen.

Damien Hanson: Kerry snapped! The former job placement officer lashed out at the Centrelink worker with her handbag before throwing a chair across the room and picking up a keyboard and slamming it to the ground in what she describes as an act of pure frustration.

Kerry Pendergast: I apologise, it should never have happened.

Damien Hanson: But it did, and she was found guilty of common assault. According to official figures, complaints against Centrelink have dropped over the past five years, but in 2010/2011 the ombudsman’s office received just under 5,000 approaches and complaints about Centrelink, and it remains the agency about which the ombudsman receives the highest number of complaints. When Centrelink allegedly overpaid this woman (Judy Lorbek) it started a chain of events which eventually landed her behind bars. Judy Lorbek is accused of stealing more than $2 million from the Commonwealth.

Michael McMillan: It’s a pretty big enticement finding $2 million in your bank account. You’d be hard pressed to find a person that wasn’t tempted at least to have a go at that. She’s a good person that made a silly decision, that lived a good life, had hard conditions, raised three kids in pretty ordinary times and she really doesn’t deserve to be behind bars.

Damien Hanson: She was wrongly paid the money which she allegedly used to pay off her mortgage and renovate her sunshine coast home.

Michael McMillan: The citizens of the state, of the Commonwealth won’t be happy without all the money retrieved.

Damien Hanson: While prosecutors argue Lobek knowingly defrauded Centrelink. Sally Mile is a Centrelink client who paid dearly for what she claims was their mistake.

Sally: I went to Centrelink on more than one occasion and said that I had a difficulty estimating wages because working as a nurse, your shift penalties vary from any given shift.

Damien Hanson: It was a bungle that also cost the single mother of three her freedom. Centrelink overpaid her $19,000 and despite making several pleas for the payments to be adjusted, she was charged with fraud and sent to prison for three months.

Sally: Some fortnights I was up on my declarations and some fortnights I was down on my declarations. Unfortunately Centrelink weren’t really interested in when I was overestimating, they were only interested when I was underestimating.

Hank Jongen: Situations where our customers become aggressive, throw pieces of equipment, smash equipment are clearly unacceptable. It’s not easy to work in a Centrelink office. Our staff are often confronted with people that are really stressed or facing very difficult situations.

Damien Hanson: He says that while Centrelink tries to minimise the mistakes they make, they cannot control the reactions of their customers.

Hank Jongen: Centrelink deals with one third of Australia’s population. We deal with a total of well over 7 million Australians at any one time. On a daily basis we deal with tens of thousands of Australians in proper, respectful and courteous environments. These sorts of incidents are rare.

Damien Hanson: But for others facing similar frustrations, Kerry and Sally have these words of wisdom;

Kerry Pendergast: Keep yourself together, excuse yourself away and then come back at another time when you know that you can sit down and discuss it with them in a more amicable manner.

Sally: My battle’s not over, my battle won’t be over until I clear my name. No one is safe from Centrelink, if you’re on a payment be very careful.