Casual workers again the forgotten faces of Australia’s latest COVID lockdowns

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As almost half of Australia battles through a lockdown, hundreds of thousands of casual workers without leave entitlements are facing an uncertain and anxious future.

Some will get $500 crisis payments if their city’s lockdown drags on longer than a week.

But for some, that won’t be enough.

As of Thursday, snap COVID lockdowns are in place across Greater Sydney, South-East Queensland, Darwin and Alice Springs, and Perth.

While many Australians can do their jobs from home or draw on leave to get through a lockdown, it is a very different story for casual workers.

Casual workers don’t get sick leave or annual leave, and they’re supposed to get a higher pay loading as compensation. But no work during a lockdown simply means no pay.

Tourism worker Cassandra Murray is one of many Sydney residents in this predicament as the city’s lockdown drags on.

She’s just lost a full week’s work in her job as a guide on a whale-watching vessel near Sydney.

“It’s obviously quite a toll financially,” she said. “Even one week of lost work is quite a big toll.”

Ms Murray has worked for the tourism company for five years on an ongoing basis and largely full-time hours, with the job her only source of income.

“I’ve got rent to pay. Food, groceries, regular bills that people won’t think about. My car registration is due next week and that will be a week’s pay,” Ms Murray said.

“I’m usually a pretty laid back, relaxed person but there is some anxiety creeping in.

“I’m wondering what happens if this lockdown drags on.”

How many casual workers are there in Australia?

There were nearly 2.3 million casual workers in Australia last year, according to the Bureau of Statistics.

Over 716,000 were in New South Wales (accounting for 31.4 per cent of all casuals in Australia).

More than 505,00 were in Victoria (22.2 per cent) and 486,000 were in Queensland (21.3 per cent).

But more granular data shows how many casuals are working in different regions of the country.

How many casuals are there in Sydney?

In May last year, after the first lockdowns began, the Parliamentary Library published detailed research on casual workers.

Using data from the Bureau of Statistics, it provided a snapshot of the landscape for casual workers in 2019, just months before COVID arrived in Australia.

Those numbers would have changed a little since then, because the number of casual employees shrank by 317,600 nationally last year, but they can provide a rough guide to the detailed level of casual employment in different regions of the country.

It’s difficult to say how many casuals in Sydney (and New South Wales broadly) would currently be out of work due to the new lockdowns.

However, we know casual workers dominate industries heavily impacted by lockdowns, such as hospitality, retail and tourism, and education (ie universities).

And data from Deputy (a rostering software company) provides an immediate glimpse of the impact of the lockdowns on those highly casualised industries.

According to data provided to the ABC, in the NSW hospitality industry, there were 108,434 shifts scheduled via Deputy’s software last week.

But that number has dropped to 33,221 shifts this week — a decline of 69.3 per cent in the first week of Greater Sydney’s lockdowns.

In the Queensland hospitality industry, there were 35,361 shifts scheduled in the week before its snap three-day lockdown, but that number has dropped to 8,899 shifts this week — a decline of 74.8 per cent.

Feeling disposable?

Emily Grant is another Sydney casual worker who has been left without income during the city’s current lockdown.

She has worked for a medium-sized retail chain for three years. The company has a mixture of permanent staff and casual workers.

“I’ve lost two weeks worth of work which is not ideal financially,” she said.

“You do feel a bit worthless, because the part time and full time workers in the same company are getting paid, even though they’re not working.

“Whereas all the casuals have been stood down indefinitely.

“You do feel a bit disposable, in a way.

“I think casual workers are often left out and left in the dock.

“People consider you to be these kind of flaky workers who come in once a week and do one shift, which is not the case.

“I’ve worked pretty much full-time as a casual.”

Where else are casuals in limbo?

Greater Sydney has the largest casual workforce, but huge areas of the country face their own lockdowns.

Combined with South-East Queensland, Darwin, Alice Springs, and Perth, hundreds of thousands of casual workers will be living in a lockdown situation.

Again, Parliamentary Library data from 2019 provides a rough guide of the numbers.

Darwin not used to it

After a year of relative normalcy in the tropics, Darwin is going through its first lockdown since the original restrictions last year.

20-year-old student Braeden Parnell usually earns money by working casually in a bar and a clothing store in Darwin.

“The lockdown has unfortunately caused me to lose all my income,” he said.

“I went from working maybe 30 hours a week to working zero hours this week.

“I feel flat to be honest. I’m stressed out.”

Mr Parnell has been using his downtime in Darwin’s snap lockdown to do odd jobs around the house, such as cleaning his mum’s car, and even researching workers rights.

“Before the lockdown, I saw further casualisation of the workforce and also further casual employees being abused.

“There’s so many people who have been exposed to casual work and normalised by it, and a lockdown is just another avenue for employers to abuse their employees.

“It should be a time where we learn about our industrial literacy where we assure ourselves of our right to a wage in this once in a century event.”

Australian economist Dan Nuham agrees.

“That brittleness in the labour market is something we’ve been commenting on for a while,” he said.

“When the tide goes out, everyone sees where the rocks are.

“The overarching takeaway for me is that we shouldn’t have an industrial relations system that allows workers who are in essence permanent to be employed casually.”

What safety nets are there for these workers?

Casual workers who had been consistently working with their employers for more than 12 months were previously eligible for JobKeeper payments.

Sydney casuals Emily Grant and Cassandra Murray both received the $750 a week JobKeeper payments last year under this scheme.

“Once we were on JobKeeper, it felt like a lot more security,” Ms Murray said.

However, JobKeeper ended in March for all workers, and the Federal government has resisted calls to bring it back as Australia continues to go in and out of state-by-state lockdowns.

Ms Murray said she was “already anxious” at the possibility of an extended lockdown in Sydney without JobKeeper.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said.

Casual workers without income can apply for JobSeeker if any of the localised city lockdowns drag on.

JobSeeker was raised to a higher payment last year for COVID but it has since dropped back down to near its pre-pandemic payment level.

JobSeeker is currently set at $310 a week for a single, plus rent assistance.

Casual workers who are on existing welfare, like AUSTUDY or JobSeeper, may also see their welfare entitlements rise for the weeks when they are without work.

The biggest safety net for casual workers currently is the $500 disaster payments that the Federal government brought in last month in response to Melbourne’s first lockdown without JobKeeper.

The “temporary COVID disaster payment” is only paid out for the second week of a city’s lockdown. Those in a snap one week lockdown can’t get it.

It also has a strict eligibility criteria.

The person has to be able to prove their lost income, cannot have access to sick leave, must have less than $10,000 in savings, and cannot be receiving any welfare support such as JobSeeker or the Parenting Payment.

All of the three casuals that ABC News spoke to believe they will be eligible for this payment, if their city’s lockdown drags into a second week.

It is highly likely this will happen in Sydney, so Ms Grant and Ms Murray will apply for the $500, although for both of them it is far below what they’d normally earn.

“A one off payment of $500 won’t go very far,” Ms Murray added.

“If there was a better system or subsidy in place for casual workers then that would be great,” Ms Grant said.

Ms Grant suggested that JobSeeker could be bumped up higher again, too.

“Something like that would be great, where it’s not just a one off payment, but some kind of financial certainty for workers like myself who are in a really precarious situation at the moment.”

What are unions saying?

Sally McManus, the secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), said all workers affected by lockdowns should be paid emergency payments.

She says workers should get wage subsidies no matter if they endure three-day lockdowns or two week lockdowns, because short lockdowns are designed to prevent longer ones, for the benefit of the whole country.

“Effectively it is the workers and small businesses that are paying the price, literally, for the failed vaccine rollout,” she said.

“It is casual workers who are suffering the most, those workers are also the most likely to lose their full income during a lockdown.”

By Emilia Terzon and Gareth Hutchens (Original ABC Article)