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EXCLUSIVE: Govt plan for older workers falls short

The Holden manufacturing plant at Elizabeth.

The Holden manufacturing plant at Elizabeth.

The Restart scheme needs to be restarted. That’s the verdict of the Department of Employment, which is set to overhaul the wage subsidy program, designed to get older Australians back to work, from November 1.

Introduced in the 2014 federal budget, the $524.8 million Restart scheme offered up to $10,000 over two years to employers willing to take on workers aged over 50.

The original target was to secure work for 32,000 mature-age jobseekers every year, but enquiries made by The New Daily to the Department of Employment reveal that the scheme found jobs for just 2318 people during its first 15 months.

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The employment situation only got worse for mature-age workers after the launch of the program – in the year to January 2015, there were 80,000 unemployed Australians aged 55 and over, an increase of 12 per cent over the year before.

The Human Rights Commission’s National Prevalence Survey of Age Discrimination in the workplace found 27 per cent of Australians aged 50-plus indicated they had experienced some form of age discrimination in the workplace in the past two years.

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DOME mature-age job agency executive director Greg Goudie (right) helps 61-year-old volunteer and jobseeker Michael Oates with an application.

One such mature-age worker struggling to find a gig is 61-year-old Michael Oates, who worked in work health and safety for local government in Adelaide until he lost his job three years ago.

He was told by recruiters his 40 years of experience in the area was a disadvantage not an advantage, and after applying for dozens of jobs in his field of expertise without so much as an interview, he started to believe them.

Mr Oates then started applying outside his area for any kind of work at all, and didn’t even hear back from employers advertising casual low-skill roles.

“Because you don’t hear anything, you almost give up,” he said.

“You think – what’s the point?”

Mr Oates, who currently keeps himself busy by volunteering with DOME, a mature-age recruitment service, is in a particularly competitive environment: South Australia, where unemployment is easily the highest in the nation.

The latest unemployment figures show the state’s jobless rate hovering at 7.9 per cent.

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 30: A general view of the Holden manufacturing plant at Elizabeth shows the company logo on July 30, 2013 in Adelaide, Australia. Holden, a subsidiary of American car giant General Motors recently reduced its staff in Adelaide by 400, in an effort to reduce operating costs. Holden and other local car manufacturers have received years of both federal and state government grants, and PM Kevin Rudd recently said he was "...determined to see this industry survive into the future." (Photo by Morne de Klerk/Getty Images)

The end of Australian vehicle manufacturing added more pain to South Australia’s already high unemployment rate. Photo: Getty

South Australian Council of Social Service (SACOSS) executive director Ross Womersley told The New Daily the idea behind the government’s wage subsidy program seemed good, but he is concerned at how it has worked in practice.

“It is incredibly regrettable,” he said.

“On the back of the performance so far, I’d be tempted to call for a review [of Restart], some development of insight as to why it isn’t attracting the interest that it should.

“Is it simply employers don’t know about scheme, or that employers don’t rate it?

“Or is there something in the mechanisms of administration that make it difficult and cumbersome to deal with?”

He said wage subsidies gave mature-age workers a chance to prove themselves, but expressed concern that workers might be pushed out of their existing jobs if the money stopped coming in.

What’s on offer?

The Restart program was originally due to be reassessed in June 2016, but under former employment minister Eric Abetz it was announced in the 2015/16 budget that changes would be brought in well ahead of that date, aiming to increase take-up and reduce complexity for employers.

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Former Employment Minister Eric Abetz brought forward changes to the Restart program.

From this coming Sunday, employers will be able to access the subsidy of $10,000 over 12 months instead of two years.

Rather than waiting out a qualifying period, employers will be able to start receiving the subsidy from the moment the mature-age worker starts work, receiving up to $6500 over a 12-month period and a bonus of up to $3500 for employment which lasts the full 12 months.

There are also special provisions to be introduced for employers taking on 10 or more mature-aged workers to co-ordinate payment times with the costs of group training and induction programs.

The half-a-billion dollars in funding for the Restart scheme has been moved into a single wage subsidy pool of $1.2 billion over four years, shared with three other employment incentive schemes.

System vulnerable to exploitation

When the revamp was first announced COTA (formerly Council on the Ageing) chief executive Ian Yates expressed concern that the pooling of wage subsidiary budgets could see the money allocated for mature-age workers spent elsewhere.

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There are concerns the scheme could encourage revolving door employment. Photo: Shutterstock

He slammed the lack of other measures to address age discrimination, as well as the requirement that the funding only apply to mature-age workers who have been out of a job for at least six months, and the shortening of time over which employers could receive the full wage subsidy.

“We are concerned that this could lead to some employers churning older employees on short contracts so employers benefit from the incentive but the workers become unemployed again,” he said.

The wage subsidy program is not the only action being taken on mature-age workers, with the Attorney-General having ordered a national inquiry into discrimination against older and disabled workers.

The inquiry is currently undertaking a series of consultations and roundtables around Australia, with the next stop in unemployment hotspot Adelaide on November 2.

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