The stakes are high as Peter Kocmar begins his work each day delivering welfare payments to people hit by the nation's Covid lockdowns. He's seen the impact of the pandemic up close while processing Covid disaster payments at Services Australia, the government agency responding to requests for financial help. The public servant is among the thousands of staff mobilised by the government in an effort to soften the financial blow of the latest lockdowns. Since the Delta variant took hold in Sydney and spread to other parts of the nation, Services Australia has witnessed a surge in demand that on some measures surpasses the worst stages of 2020. Last year the welfare agency's highest number of calls answered in a day was 152,500. In the latest outbreak the agency has set a record, answering 246,000 calls on August 10. Services Australia has granted 2.1 million claims for the COVID-19 disaster payment, worth more than $2.8 billion in initial and recurring payments, since July 1. It's not surprising that the pace of work has grown in the last two months. Mr Kocmar has been taking calls from areas in lockdown around the nation - Queensland, Victoria, NSW and elsewhere. "There's less time in between waiting periods for phones to ring," he says. Staff decompress with five minute breaks, or by debriefing with their colleagues. Mr Kocmar is thriving on the pace. He joined Services Australia because he wanted to help people. Among his tasks, Mr Kocmar guides colleagues through the technology, and processes, used to deliver payments. The agency, which has mobilised 18,000 staff to support the Covid response, has trained newcomer employees in its IT and payment types. "It's a matter of us changing our point of view and trying to teach some people who have been working in different parts of the agency to be able to do these claims and to be able to help customers better," Mr Kocmar says. A colleague, Mark Williams, says staff have to adapt quickly to the rapidly evolving crisis. Policies can change quickly in response. Among the many staff suddenly deployed to the front line is Services Australia graduate Imogen Moseley. She started the year in project work before she was seconded to the agency's NSW flood response. The graduate remembers her nerves when answering her first call from someone in financial distress during the flood disasters earlier this year. In recent weeks, she has been taking calls from people seeking Covid disaster payments. Ms Moseley says the stories she has heard from people dealing with the floods and the pandemic have been heart breaking. It has shown her up close the devastation of COVID-19. Her experience answering phones has also changed how she approaches processing claims. "It made me aware of the complexities of people's lives," Ms Moseley says. "With processing a claim, there's only a smaller snippet of insight into their lives that you get, but you still bring the empathy and understanding of the person as a whole to that processing, even though you're just seeing it on a screen. "You've had those conversations and you understand what the struggle is like for people." Demand on Services Australia has soared in the pandemic. The agency's minister, Linda Reynolds, used the "u" word - "unprecedented" - before listing some headline figures in an address to its staff earlier this month. Last year Services Australia processed 438 million claims, and made $203.7 billion in payments. It paid $280 million in emergency response payments and $11 billion in COVID-19 response payments. "Those payments are making an extraordinary difference to so many Australians who are doing it so tough at the moment," Minister Reynolds told staff. She was speaking on August 6 at the nerve centre of the agency's work, the Services Australia Operations Centre. READ MORE COVID-19 NEWS: In a room at the agency's Caroline Chisholm Centre in Tuggeranong, rows of public servants monitor the data from its operations on a wall of 40 screens showing graphs and charts. They feed the information to senior decision-makers, who can reallocate the agency's resources to areas facing higher demand or bottlenecks. Services Australia national manager Kelly Taylor says the centre, which evolved out of the agency's response to Queensland floods in 2010-11, gave visibility of transactions across channels. "We needed to have a holistic view of that so that we could start to look at all of those different things coming in, because regardless of where the transaction comes from, there's actually a human at the end of that, someone in need of something from us," she says. "If I describe what the operations centre is, it is whatever the day is, because there is not necessarily the same day every day." The centre is a 24/7 operation, and like elsewhere in the agency, the pressure on staff is high. Claim volumes remain large. But Ms Moseley doesn't find the workload overwhelming. The agency had the numbers to deal with it, she says. "You know that you're not going through it alone, and we're all a strong united front to get through it together, so it's not so daunting." Our coverage of the health and safety aspects of this outbreak of COVID-19 and the lockdown is free for anyone to access. However, we depend on subscription revenue to support our journalism. If you are able, please subscribe here. If you are already a subscriber, thank you for your support. You can also sign up for our newsletters for regular updates.