Millions have been stood down from work as a result of the lockdowns across major cities. The Delta variant of COVID-19 has spread rapidly through essential workplaces and retail outlets.
The federal government brought in its Disaster Payment but, until July 28, it did not include those already receiving income support – those on JobSeeker, Youth Allowance, disability support and the pension.
Alison Pennington, a senior economist at the Centre for Future Work, pointed to the policy inconsistencies where a student who works part-time and receives Youth Allowance did not qualify for the payment but a wealthy student who lives at home and did not get Youth Allowance (due to their parents’ income) could receive it.
More than 1.2 million students, pensioners, disabled people and their carers and the unemployed went without support for four weeks.
But, under pressure from welfare groups, unions, the Greens and even the Liberal NSW treasurer, the federal government extended the Disaster Payment to workers on JobSeeker and Youth Allowance.
However, they have to prove they have lost at least eight hours of work. Those who can will receive an additional $200.
This means that those on JobSeeker can receive just over $500 a week and those on Youth Allowance, $456.
The Disaster Payment has also been raised to $750 a week for people who have lost more than 20 hours of work per week and $450 for those who have lost less than 20 hours.
The Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) CEO Cassandra Goldie said on July 27 that online searches for emergency relief services had “sky-rocketed” following the NSW and Victorian lockdowns. Community services are already “doing all they can to help”, she said, but it was not enough.
Green Left spoke to several people about how they were surviving.
Aneesa, is a 23-year-old living in Western Sydney, receives JobSeeker (currently $44 a day) and works as a casual tutor.
Under lockdown, she has had to cancel her face-to-face tutoring work, also because her clients could not afford to continue.
“Jobseeker is already $40 under the Henderson poverty line and, without my tutoring work, I am not able to make ends meet.
“My rent already takes 90% of my payment. As other expenses, like groceries and bills continue to pile on, I don’t know how I am going to get by for the lockdown which seems as if it will go on until at least September.”
Aneesa said she was experiencing physical and mental health problems. “A doctor told me at the start of the lockdown that my stress was related to my lack of income [and that it was] giving me back pain. Jobseeker is too low for people like me to be able to afford health specialists or a psychologist.”
She said that as her work is insecure and freelance, she is unsure how she will be able to prove she has lost hours to receive the new disaster payment.
No additional support is being offered to unemployed workers or anyone who is unable to work, including people on disability payments and full-time students.
The ABC reported on July 28 that people under 30 years’ old account for more than half of the current infections. NSW Health data showed that from 2,397 cases reported, 583 are children and teenagers, with 223 aged between 0-9 and 360 aged between 10 and 19.
Young people are more likely to be working in essential retail jobs and, until recently, have been unable to access vaccines.
Workers at the Annette Kellerman Aquatic Centre (AKAC) in the Inner West of Sydney have been stood down. The United Workers Union (UWU) is supporting their campaign to force the council pool managers, Belgravia Leisure, to pay pandemic leave.
Zoe, a student, was stood down at the beginning of the lock down. This casual work supplements her Youth Allowance payment and for more than a month she has had to survive on just over $300 a week – something that is not possible in Sydney.
“Without help from family, I’m not able to pay rent and bills,” she told GL. “The majority of people at the AKAC are young students, with limited savings, who have to work because the Youth Allowance payment is so low.”
Zoe and other workers at AKAC organised a car convoy protest on August 1 to demand the disaster payment is raised to $750 a week for everyone who has lost work during the lockdown. They also want vaccine and sick leave for all, an increase of JobSeeker to the COVID-19 supplement rate, and for all workers to receive test and isolate payments.
She said the pandemic pain would last longer for people like her. “Not having enough income through lockdown means I’ll have to catch up on debts and income lost throughout the lockdown.”
Push to raise JobSeeker
Anglicare Australia released a survey on July 26 showing that two in five people suffered economically over the past year. Young people were the hardest hit, it noted, with 56% under the age of 29 in this position.
Executive director Kasy Chambers put the blame on the JobSeeker payment being “too low and too restrictive”. She said many people who work casually cannot find positions and this will become “worse” as lockdowns continue.
The Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union (AUWU), GetUp! the Anti-Poverty Network, the Greens and now the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) are pushing for JobSeeker to lifted to $80 a day, or around $550 a week.
The AUWU said the federal government had already shown, last year, “it can lift everyone on welfare payments out of poverty — overnight”, and is calling on the Labor Party to support the rise.
ACTU Secretary Sally McManus said on July 26 that JobSeeker should be raised to $600 a week because “we’re in a situation where no one can get jobs”.
As the pandemic continues to spread in Sydney and the lockdown is extended (at least) to the end of August, it is vital that disaster payments are made available to all who need them.
ACOSS has welcomed the new disaster payment, but said on July 28 that those with the “very least” – those who had less paid work or none prior to the lockdown – were still being abandoned.
“Lockdown prevents everyone on social security payments from being able to find paid work,” Goldie said, adding that we are not “all in this together”. The government is “dividing communities by providing financial support to some and leaving others who have the least behind them facing destitution on $44 a day”.
“This is a serious public health emergency – you can’t stay at home if you can’t afford to keep a roof over your head,” Goldie concluded.