Senior Australian of the Year: Changing pension rules about paid work is “very high on my agenda”

Val Dempsey, shares her experiences as a working pensioner and why the rules need to change.

2022 Senior Australian of the Year Val Dempsey has spent her life promoting and delivering emergency first aid training to help save lives. She believes current pension income rules could be preventing other seniors like her from doing the same.

Having experienced the obstacles facing working pensioners first-hand, Val has thrown her support behind National Seniors’ campaign to change the Age Pension income test rules to allow pensioners to work without penalty.

The life-long St John Ambulance volunteer drew on her own life experiences as a pensioner when describing the need for changes to Age Pension income rules.

“As a Registered Nurse, it would be so easy to supplement our household income,” Val said. “However, my hourly rate instantly puts me over any amount of money that I’m allowed to earn while being on the Age Pension. I wouldn’t even be able to get three hours in a fortnight without it affecting my pension.”

Her story is a powerful illustration of pensioners’ frustrations with barriers to paid work in this country. In response to these barriers, National Seniors is calling on the federal government to let Age Pension recipients work without application of the income test, on a three-year trial

“Our surveys of thousands of older Australians have demonstrated the urgent need for this change,” said National Seniors CEO and Director of Research, Professor John McCallum. 

“Val Dempsey’s story puts a human face on the statistics.”


Work means community involvement


Val recounted caravanning in earlier years and wanting to work in local communities she visited but being unable to.

“For myself and my husband, when we’ve travelled, we look at the opportunity of being able to participate in community activities for money. Because that would’ve meant we could have gone with our caravan, parked in some convenient place, and gone picking watermelons in our well days,” she said.

“And to do that you then, of course, declare your earnings. And while we certainly don’t mind paying tax to contribute to the overall economy, the idea of losing my pension because I want to work became very unfair to me.”

However, it isn’t simply about travel money. Val was named Senior Australian of the Year for her extensive volunteer service to the community, and for her, community service is an important reason to engage in paid work as well as volunteering.

“I’m sure there’s a lot of people in the same position as myself who would enjoy contributing to the community,” she said. “What I’d like to see changed is the ability for people to earn extra income without it affecting the pension.”

“Older people, our wonderful seniors across Australia, could benefit greatly from being out there and still contributing to the community in the workforce. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re taking jobs from juniors. It means that we’re actually being involved in the community. Seniors have so much to offer. And for them to have a monetary reward for being able to contribute to the community is very high on my agenda.”


Pension rules prohibit work


National Seniors believes the amount a pensioner is allowed to earn before it affects their pension is too low, and Val agrees.

“Perhaps there might be some consideration to raising the threshold where one can earn a certain amount of money without it affecting the pension,” Val said. “It doesn’t have to be thousands and thousands of dollars. But because it is, in our case, only a few hundred dollars that changes our ability to go and work.”

An additional barrier Val identified is the Age Pension rule that if a person’s earned income reduces their pension payments to zero dollars over a six-fortnight period, they lose their pension entitlement completely.

“If you earn over an amount of money that stops your pension entirely, you then have to reapply for the whole thing,” Val said.

“That’s an enormous issue for people. It means more doctor’s visits, it means more going to Centrelink, it means more form filling out, it means declaring all of your assets, it means gathering and collecting bank statements. It is a very big job to apply for a pension.”

The high cost of living and relatively low rate of increase to the pension in recent times are also issues Val recognises.

“We know right across Australia that the pension does not keep up with the annual inflation rate, and lately it’s been unfair,” she said.

“And I would really like personally to be able to bring extra income into the house. But I am completely put off by the fact that, first of all, it will affect my pension. And secondly, if I do it for too long and I do too much over too many weeks, I am in a position where my pension is completely taken away. And that really concerns me.”


Good for pensioners, good for business


“If the Senior Australian of the Year can’t engage in paid community service because of outdated pension rules, something must change,” said Professor McCallum.

“Australian pensioners want work and Australian businesses want workers, so it just makes sense for the federal government to implement a three-year trial of waiving the Age Pension income test.”

Ms Dempsey’s perspective demonstrates the vibrancy and positive attitude that many Australian seniors would bring to paid jobs.

“We do not take away the jobs of young people, we simply do jobs with a little bit more experience up our sleeves,” she said.

“And don’t be surprised! Pensioners are prepared to do anything and learn new skills as well. Goodness gracious, if I go picking apples, I’ve not done that for a very long time, and it does require particular skill. But what about if I went interstate, and I could pick up a few shifts in nursing, wouldn’t that be marvellous for my experience? And it’d keep my hand in in nursing without it affecting my pension to the point of me losing it.”

The point is, pensioners are not asking for free money but for more relaxed rules that incentivise re-entering the workforce.

“I understand we do have to have a reduced income on the pension. I’m not asking for handouts here,” said Val. “But I am asking to be supported so that I do not have to reapply for my pension when I come back to requiring the pension as my only source of income.”


Let pensioners work


National Seniors is calling on the federal government to exempt employment income from the Age Pension income test so pensioners with limited wealth can work without losing their pension and help meet critical labour force shortages.