Near-record levels of people on the jobseeker payment are sick or have a disability, with more than 350,000 people on the dole now unable to work full-time.
Department of Social Services figures for June reveal 358,000 people on the jobseeker payment – or 43.1% – had a “partial capacity to work”, meaning they can only work between 15 and 30 hours a week.
That was close to the pre-pandemic figure of 43.5% in September 2019 and a massive increase on the figure of 25% at June 2014.
The current cohort includes nearly 150,000 or 41% of those with a mental health condition and 111,000 (31%) who had a musculoskeletal or connective tissue condition.
About 7,300 people on the jobseeker payment had cancer/tumour listed as their condition, pointing to a problem identified in reporting by Guardian Australia last year showing how some cancer patients are blocked from the disability support pension.
Andrew Howard has been on the jobseeker payment for about a decade after chronic pain forced him to end a long career as a parts interpreter in the automotive industry.
Howard had a rare hip condition as a child called Perthes disease that has since caused osteoarthritis.
“[The pain] is pretty bad at night, often keeps me awake at night,” Howard, 48, said. “It’s difficult to get dressed, bending over is awkward.
“Day-to-day I’m limited in how far I can walk … If I have to stand in one place for an extended period of time that puts pressure on my hips and that causes pain.”
He’s been rejected from the disability support pension, which would lift his income by $340 a fortnight, even though Centrelink accepts he can only work 15 hours a week at most.
Howard said he had unsuccessfully applied for hundreds of jobs over the past decade – aside from some contract work he’s gotten doing data entry.
Howard’s condition means most available jobs are unsuitable while he is passed over for the ones that are.
“I tend to get very frustrated when people say that [there are plenty of jobs available],” he said. “It doesn’t take into account people’s individual circumstances.
“I can’t just go down the street and get a job at Maccas or in a cafe … or a warehouse.”
The Albanese government has acknowledged more must be done to assist those with a disability to find work, declaring it a focus of the recent jobs summit in Canberra.
But it has also ruled out increasing the base rate of the jobseeker payment in the October budget, saying it will consider whether it might be raised or not in each future budget.
The payment was increased by $25.70 a fortnight this month through the automatic indexation process, which adjusts benefits in line with inflation.
Given those with partial capacity to work cannot work full-time, many still rely on welfare payments and even if they do find work, they would still benefit from an increase to the base rate or changes to the income taper thresholds.
Guardian Australia reported last week those on the dole were excluded from changes to the income test for pensioners agreed at the jobs summit.
Still, 82% of those on the dole with partial capacity to work earned no income at all in the past fortnight.
This includes Howard, who is single and not eligible for supplementary benefits, and gets by on the sub-poverty level jobseeker payment of $642.70 a fortnight.
He said he was lucky that he was no longer paying a mortgage, but said home maintenance costs, strata fees, council rates and his medical bills and the general rising cost of living meant he still struggled week to week.
He said the government should lift the base rate of payments and offer jobs to those with disabilities who wanted employment.
Dr Peter Davidson, principal adviser at the Australian Council of Social Service, said changes to the disability support pension in 2012 were a big factor in the increased number of people with disability on jobseeker.
He said other factors included that people with partial capacity to work – including many older workers and those with mental health conditions – were still at a disadvantage in the labour market.
“Employers, despite the tightness of the labour market, still hesitate to employ people with disability or mental illness.” he said.
He said record low headline unemployment rates were an opportunity for employers to hire people with disability and should also mean they were “more willing to invest in people and keep them on”.
But Davidson said there was also a cohort who ought to be on the disability pension rather than jobseeker.
Data shows 82% of those with a partial capacity to work have been on been the jobseeker payment for more than two years.
Age is also a key factor. Indeed, 63% of those with partial capacity to work are over 45 years old. Among all jobseekers aged between 54 and 65, only 42% have been assessed by Centrelink as being able to work full-time, with the remaining people having a health condition.
10.1% have been on payment for less than 1 year. Between June 2020 and June 2022, this proportion decreased by 10.6 percentage points.
Kristin O’Connell, of the Antipoverty Centre, said those who had partial capacity to work would be better equipped to find work if they were lifted out of poverty and could afford life’s necessities.
“There are easy things we can do overnight that will improve the situation and there are hard problems. The easy thing they can do is increase payments and get rid of compulsory mutual obligations.”
The social services minister, Amanda Rishworth, said everyone deserved “the dignity of work” and the government was “committed to expanding employment opportunities for all”.
“That is why people on jobseeker payment are required to undertake job searches, study or attend job interviews.
“We want to keep people connected to the workforce and to the community, where they can do so.”