(Image: AAP Image/James Ross)

This is part two of a three-part series. For part one, go here.

Sarah* is ambitious, educated and eager to work. She also has high-functioning autism and relies on the support of disability employment service (DES) providers, referred to her by Centrelink, to help find her a suitable job. 

But her latest experience with a DES provider not only failed to find her work appropriate for her needs, but left her anxious, depressed, and afraid to pick up the phone. 

“I just want to find something meaningful, where I’m appreciated and that accepts I’m a bit different,” Sarah told Inq.

Instead, the DES provider in Melbourne’s inner-city told her to lie about her depression and medication. “They told me to say I have high-functioning autism, but that I’m not depressed — which is completely untrue.” 

As outlined in a Job Capacity Assessment by Centrelink, Sarah needs a high level of support and works best in roles that aren’t face-to-face with clients. She suits working in office administration — a role she has over a year of experience in.

But she soon discovered the recruitment centre had simply uploaded her CV to job site Seek, applying her for unsuitable retail jobs and listing Sarah’s phone number. “I then got calls from employers with no warnings, to interview for jobs [I couldn’t do]”.

The experience led to her mental health plummeting, with the stress causing her to scratch her arms until they bled. 

Sarah’s experience isn’t unique. The eight job seekers Inq spoke to said they were initially excited about being eligible for DES, but their excitement quickly turned to disappointment. 

Rebecca Turner said she was at first pleased with her DES provider on the Gold Coast. “I was impressed, I liked what they said to me about what I was going to receive and the plan.” But almost immediately, she felt let down — despite having a bachelor’s degree and previous work experience, the only job she was offered was factory work. “I ended up finding a job through my mum,” she said. “I’m grateful I did — I can’t imagine if I relied solely on them to get a job, it didn’t seem like it was going to go anywhere.” 

Melissa Fisher, a 37-year-old from Adelaide said her DES appointments were nothing but a tick-and-flick service. “Every appointment was for 15 minutes and it was a waste of time. Every appointment they’d ask the same questions and tell me they’d redo my resume next week … 18 months there, and not one resume.” 

35-year-old Aeryn Brown from Wollongong said she wanted her DES provider to help her find out about jobs she was qualified for. “I’d like them to help me out with looking for suitable jobs, and dropping [employers] a line,” she said. Instead, she was enrolled in a communications workshop — despite having bachelors in arts and communication. “They’re forcing us to look for work where there are no jobs,” she said. 

Harriett Adams is the sole carer of her children. Her DES appointments constantly changed with as little as half an hour notice, with benefits cut off for not making appointments.

“I have felt these organisations have made it harder for me to continue working in the way I have been,” she said. Prior to using a DES provider, Adams had worked shifts and scheduled interviews around her working hours and childcare commitments. Since using a DES provider, she has been “overwhelmed with a sense of inability to make traction in my life and [a] sense of injustice”.

None of the jobseekers Inq spoke to found long-term employment through their provider; all said their experiences had negatively impacted their mental health. 

Most had tried to change providers at least once; but, as in the case of Turner, it proved difficult. Her consultant had given her unsolicited medical advice, before requesting Turner enquire if the consultant could also work at her new job. To change providers, Turner would have to go back to her initial provider. “Because of the uncomfortable experience, I don’t want to do that.” Turner has cerebral palsy and a general anxiety disorder and has since been found eligible for the disability support pension.

Tomorrow: how providers game the system, making millions from regulatory loopholes.

*Sarah requested her name be changed for this story