COVID support payments still exclude many businesses and workers who are struggling to survive

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It is 562 days since Australia’s first confirmed case of coronavirus. Yet, more than 18 months on, many workers and business owners still feel we haven’t moved past those turbulent beginnings of the pandemic, with weak support and an uncertain future.

“The confidence isn’t there,” Corey Barnes, who mows lawns and maintains gardens in the Illawarra region south of Sydney, said.

“In this industry, myself and other guys that I’ve spoken to are very scared, very worried about our future, very, very worried about our businesses, whether we’re going to be able to continue.”

Almost a year and a half into the crisis, the most populated areas of New South Wales and Queensland are in lockdown, along with the whole of Victoria, while other states remain on edge.

Grim history

It is hard to overstate the impact of the virus on Australian lives, or the economy.

The coronavirus spread from China around the world at the start of 2020.

Since then, almost a million people were made unemployed at some point during the pandemic.

Australia’s international border was shut, ending the flow of migration that had brought workers, students, tourists and investment to the nation’s shores.

More than 3.5 million people – almost a third of the workforce – were placed on a wage subsidy called JobKeeper that ended up costing around $90 billion.

Welfare recipients received a coronavirus supplement that, in many cases, doubled the amount they had received previously, wrenching them out of poverty.

Australia had its first recession in almost 30 years.

Unemployment has subsequently returned to pre-pandemic levels, but with a greater number of casual and part-time jobs than before, as job vacancies hit sky-high levels.

Support morphs

After JobKeeper ended, the federal government moved to helping through payments like those given to victims of natural disasters.

As NSW’s lockdown extended, the eligibility requirements were loosened and the payments boosted.

“Unlike JobKeeper, these payments were made on the basis of number of hours each worker had lost,” Treasurer John Frydenberg told News Breakfast last week.

“Not on the turnover reduction in the business that they had worked for.”

For many people, the payments are now at the level JobKeeper was, something welcomed by Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry acting CEO Jenny Lambert.

“The increased support is greatly needed,” she said in a statement when the expansion was announced.

“Rent, interest on loans, electricity, internet must still be paid – an impossible feat for many small and medium businesses with zero revenue.

“The longer the lockdown continues, the harder it is for businesses to cover these fixed costs.”

But gaps in the support trouble Alison Pennington, senior economist at the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work think tank.

“The disaster payments scheme is a real patchwork and largely inadequate scheme because it’s missing a great deal of people,” she said, pointing to welfare recipients and workers outside the criteria.

Rachel Slade, group executive of personal banking at NAB, is more optimistic.

“Any support that’s offered, both from a business perspective and a personal customer perspective, is going to be helpful,” she said.

“The support changes as the situation changes, and I think we should expect that to continue.”

Bank backing

NAB is one of the big four banks in Australia and Ms Slade oversees services for more than 4.9 million customers.

In April and May last year, the bank received “five years worth of calls in in five weeks”, and other institutions received the same frenzy of concern and contact. Things are different now.

“We’re certainly not at those types of volumes,” she said.

“But there’s growing uncertainty, more from our business customers than our personal customers.

“It’s the same sentiment as we were seeing last year, which is just that sentiment of uncertainty.”

Collectively, Australia’s largest banks allowed customers to pause their mortgage payments as the crisis began.

Together with bans on rental evictions, this averted what could have been both a housing crisis and a collapse in the real estate market.

Mortgage pausing is still being offered by banks to customers in distress, but it is no longer the first option offered.

“Deferring payments just extends the problem,” Ms Slade said.

“So we would encourage customers that can continue to make payments, to do that.”

Nonetheless, the Australian Banking Association said the latest lockdowns have seen more than 20,000 customers access hardship assistance, with more than 14,500 home loans and 600 business loans deferred.

Support hard to get

Corey Barnes’s business, The Aussie Lawn Guy, has been receiving the disaster payments. But state-based business support that would have allowed him to keep staff on has been too difficult to access.

“We haven’t applied for it because it’s just too hard,” he said.

“Myself and other business owners in this industry have decided that it’s just too many hoops to jump through.”

He has had to let go of two sub-contractors and an apprentice.

“I just couldn’t afford to feed myself, let alone have him on,” he lamented.

Decisions like that are just an example of the gaps in support, according to Ms Pennington.

“Providing decent income supports to businesses and people to keep people home, to stop transmission, to bring the lockdown to an end as quickly as possible is necessary,” she said.

Pay to isolate

Ms Pennington, from the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute, said stopping the spread means, in many cases, temporarily stopping commerce. And to do that you have to pay casual, cash-in-hand and vulnerable workers to isolate when needed.

“We’ve got reports of workers doing their tests, coming up to work and working while they’re infectious and transmitting while in the workforce,” she said.

“So we need test and isolate payments to nip that in the bud and support that worker to stay home.”

NAB’s Rachel Slade described the current situation as being drenched in fatigue.

“Particularly amongst businesses about the ‘on again, off again, on again’, we hear that from customers,” she said.

“Both the banks and our customers have got a bit more experience as well of working through this. But it’s not experience any of us really ever wanted to get.”

Back in Wollongong, Corey Barnes is loading his ride-on mower onto his trailer, happy to be able to work after a month of enforced closure.

“Yeah, look, the confidence isn’t there,” Corey Barnes said.

“That’s, I guess, the worry in the back of my mind … that we may not be able to grow, we may have to close up shop.”

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By business reporter Daniel Ziffer (Original ABC Article)