Takin’ it to the street

As doctors and nurses battle coronavirus on the frontline, hundreds of thousands of Australians are facing an equally terrifying enemy – widespread unemployment.

CatholicCare Social Services, Hunter-Manning director, Gary Christensen, says the endless queues outside Centrelink offices in recent weeks highlight the fact that unemployment is likely to get worse before it gets better, leading to “enormous” pressure on family cohesion, social services and community housing. “The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has led to record numbers of unemployment with no sign of that changing for some time,” he said.

Flight Centre has stood down almost 4000 staff nationwide while the Australian Hotels Association issued a statement saying the shutdown would have “a devastating effect” on the 250,000 people it directly employs.

 Retail group Premier Investments, which owns the stationery brand Smiggle and clothing chains including Just Jeans, Portmans and Dotti has stood down 9000 employees, while Virgin Airlines has stood down up to 10,000 staff and Qantas close to 20,000. While these are some of the hardest-hit sectors, few industries will be spared the economic carnage.

“The financial pressure people are under and will be under for a long period of time will mean governments need to be looking at providing increased funding in a whole range of areas including community housing, mental health support services, domestic violence services and homeless services like the Taree Community Kitchen and DARA’s Food Services,” Mr Christensen said.

 In the days following the shutdown of all non-essential businesses, almost three million people attempted to register for income support on the government’s MyGov website and that number is expected to rise sharply in the coming months.

Sou chef Mark Meldrum lost his full-time job when The Happy Wombat restaurant/bar was forced to close two weeks ago due to the shutdown.

“I’ve got five weeks annual leave available but after that I’m not sure what will happen,” he said. “The government is only talking about the level of support available for casuals and welfare recipients and hasn’t mentioned full-timers who have lost their job due to the shutdown.”

Mr Meldrum says the Jobseeker (Newstart) payment will be substantially lower than his regular weekly earnings, making it difficult to meet his financial obligations. “I’m looking at more than a 50 per cent drop in my weekly wage on Jobseeker. There’s been no mention of rent assistance by the government so much of that payment will go to rent.”

Mr Meldrum believes the federal government should provide workers with a wage subsidy that amounts to 80 per cent of their current salary, similar to the one implemented by the UK government.

“The Jobseeker rate is simply not high enough,” he said. “I have so many friends with young families who have lost their jobs and will struggle to get by. The UK model would mean so much less worry for all of us who have lost our jobs through no fault of our own and just need to hang on until the shutdown ends. I know my job is there waiting for me.”

The Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus warned two million people could be out of work in the coming weeks and wrote to Scott Morrison calling for UK-style wage subsidies of up to $5200 a month for each worker. Nearly 15,000 people have signed an ACTU-led petition calling for the wage subsidy.

CatholicCare’s Mr Christensen agrees the Jobseeker allowance is nowhere near enough for people to live on. “The challenges for people on Jobseeker now are housing affordability, having enough money for food and provisions, being able to buy clothing and attend to the everyday needs of themselves and their families,” he said.

Peak business groups including the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Australian Industry Group, Business Council of Australia, Council of Small Business Organisations Australia, the Australian Banking Association and the National Farmers Federation have now expressed support for a wage subsidy.

At the time Aurora went to print, the Morrison Government was continuing to reject a UK-style subsidy, arguing it would be inequitable and difficult to administer within Australia's social security system. However, as an alternative the Government is reported to be strongly considering providing businesses with a wage subsidy of up to $1,500 per employee. The amount would be paid every fortnight to help businesses pay their workers' wages, while their revenue takes a hit.

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