Melbourne’s latest lockdown is ending, but many are still in financial stress as welfare switches off

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Melbourne’s fourth lockdown is ending tonight, but income will not come flooding back for some workers and emergency support could be revoked as quickly as it appeared.

The city’s hard COVID lockdown ends at midnight, with major employers such as bars and restaurants re-opening, but under strict capacity limits.

This is Melbourne’s first COVID lockdown without the wage subsidy JobKeeper and with the unemployment benefit JobSeeker back down close to its pre-COVID level.

After two weeks without work in the city, many casual workers and sole-traders are financially stressed.

Some have been able to receive emergency cash payments of up to $500 brought in by the federal government last week to help people in a lockdown.

The federal government agreed to pay for this “demand driven program” on the proviso that states provide all business assistance during lockdowns.

Several people the ABC has spoken to in recent weeks who were stressed about cash have now confirmed that they have received $500 in their bank accounts.

For some, the payments only took 24 hours to land.

International students, who have historically received less support during the pandemic because they are not eligible for Centrelink, were also given access to the payments.

Sri Lankan international student Dhana Athukorala has lost all her casual work as a student advisor and a library assistant during the city’s lockdown.

Like all casual workers, she has no access to sick leave or annual leave entitlements.

She believes she is eligible for the $500 payment and is applying for it today.

“It’s great that the government is looking after us international students” she said.

“It gives me a sense of belonging.”

But who hasn’t gotten the $500 payments?

There are an estimated 500,000 casual workers in Victoria and many more people who work for themselves as sole-traders.

Services Australia data given to ABC News shows 7,868 people had been paid out under the federal government’s emergency payment scheme by Tuesday night.

People were able to apply for payments of either $500 or $325 depending on their working hours.

A spokesperson for Services Australia said the total cost of payouts made so far was $3,675,700.

That’s roughly 55 cents per each Victorian.

Almost 23,000 more people were still waiting for their claims to be processed, which would equate to a maximum of $11.9 million more in payments if they all received the full $500.

Centrelink had received almost 14,000 calls from people about the payments.

Services Australia will give updated figures today which should show a rise in payments, and people are still able to apply for the payment which could see applications rise.

Why aren’t more people being paid out?

People with savings in the bank of more than $10,000 were automatically excluded from receiving an emergency payment under the scheme.

So too were people already on Centrelink payments, such as Parenting Payments, Austudy or JobSeeker.

That was because the federal government said the payments were designed to only help the truly desperate who could not access welfare or savings.

Many on welfare benefits during Melbourne’s lockdown will see their entitlements for this period rise, due to having no subsidiary work.

This would be an added cost to the federal government’s bottom line.

Department of Social Services data from March 2021 showed there were 280,000 people in Victoria on JobSeeker alone.

Melbourne student Sami Zehir usually supplements his Youth Allowance payments with casual work as a lifesaver at events like rowing regattas.

He was already claiming the maximum amount of Youth Allowance at $512.50 per fortnight, plus some rent assistance.

He has lost work during Melbourne’s shutdown and does not know when he will next get work because outdoor gatherings and major events have been capped at 100 people.

And he is not eligible for the $500 payment because he is on welfare. So he’s dipping into his savings.

“I find it pretty hard in that I feel I’m going backwards. I’m on borrowed time,” he said.

“My money is going down and I know I can’t get it back.”

Another masters student on Austudy told ABC News they are in a similar predicament after losing their one-day-a-week job at a retail plant store in Melbourne.

“Without the lockdown I had $418 a week to live off, however over the last two weeks that has been reduced to $258,” they said.

“I pay $650 in rent per month, leaving me roughly $40 to live off per week.

“If I had the opportunity to apply for the (emergency) payment of $325, it would have helped me marginally rather than not at all.

“Not being given the chance to apply gives students a huge unfair disadvantage, putting more stress on what is already an incredibly stressful time.”

Emergency payments likely to end today

The chief executive of the Australian Council of Social Services, Dr Cassandra Goldie, said she is “pleased” that some payments were made to impacted workers.

“We’re also concerned about people being ineligible if they’ve got some paid work, even though they’ve lost hours,” she said.

“We need to make sure that people don’t have to jump through multiple hoops to get access to urgent income support.”

The federal government only gave people the emergency payments for the second week they were out of work during Melbourne’s lockdown.

Eligibility was tied to people being in a declared COVID hotspot.

The country’s Chief Medical Officer declared Greater Melbourne as a hotspot on June 4 for the purposes of its residents to receive Commonwealth support.

That current declaration ends today on June 10.

It is unclear if this declaration ending as planned will turn the tap off on further emergency payments for Melbourne workers.

If that is the case, the federal government will have provided emergency welfare support for one week in total.

In a statement, the Department of Health said the CMO “is scheduled to review the listing for the Commonwealth Hotspot for Greater Melbourne”.

Victoria’s acting premier James Merlino told reporters on Wednesday that it is understood the emergency payments will stop.

“I can confirm that Tim Pallas, our Treasurer, reached out to the federal Treasurer to advocate for continuation of support,” he said.

“My understanding is that is not forthcoming.”

What has the state been doing for workers?

The state maintains that welfare is a matter for the Commonwealth while it should handle business impacts, which was essentially the deal made at National Cabinet for the emergency welfare payments.

The Victorian government has now announced about $500 million in grants for small to medium businesses impacted by the latest shutdown.

It has just topped up that amount with extra grants for Melbourne businesses that still cannot reopen on Friday under eased restrictions, such as gyms and yoga studios.

Whether the state actually spends that allocated money is up to whether businesses apply for the grants and are successful in getting them.

As of Wednesday morning, the Victorian government had received 72,800 applications for grants under its Business Costs Assistance Package and 5,800 under its larger Licensed Hospitality Venues Fund.

Assuming most of those grants get paid out, the sum total to the Victorian government could go anywhere from a few hundred million to in excess of $400 million.

A spokesperson for the state Treasurer said the first payments of these grants will be issued this week.

Businesses need to attest in applying for the grants that they are helping workers access paid leave but there is nothing forcing grant money to be passed onto staff.

One of the sore points for sole-traders who have lost work during Melbourne’s shutdown is that they are not eligible for grants if they earn below $75,000.

Melbourne audio engineer Anton Dykstra has lost all his contract work during the shutdown, including a three night tour with a local band.

Given ongoing crowd caps in the city, Mr Dykstra does not know when he will start getting work at big events and live music venues again.

“I had a little bit of money left on me but not much. I’m basically living on credit and living frugally,” he said.

He is livid that this lockdown he cannot apply for the state’s grants as a sole-trader that earns less than $75,000 and is not registered for GST.

“I’ve been pulling my hair out the last five days finding I’m in no category and no box can be ticked,” he said.

“I am totally frustrated. And annoyed. I just feel totally left out. They just don’t care. They’re leaving us out like they don’t exist.”

In questioning whether this issue will be addressed, a spokesperson for the state treasurer said sole-traders should be eligible for the federal government’s emergency payments.

Mr Dykstra applied for the $500 federal grant yesterday and is hoping to receive that one-off cash injection.

“There’s a lot of support and emphasis on people who can go back to work but there’s a whole lot of us out there who can’t go back to work,” he said.

“We can’t go back there because capacity won’t be enough in live entertainment.

“We’re left out. We have to wait.

“People should spare a thought for those of us who aren’t going back to work.”

By business reporter Emilia Terzon (Original ABC Article)