Australians who are losing paid work and struggling to make ends meet because of COVID-19 lockdowns are being denied access to the federal government’s emergency payment because they receive welfare payments.
In lieu of bringing back JobKeeper, in early June Prime Minister Scott Morrison introduced the federal government’s COVID disaster payment to support workers caught in lockdowns lasting more than a week. Yesterday Morrison announced an increased payment of $600 for workers who have lost more than 20 hours of work, and $375 for those who lost up to 20 hours.
However, the government’s eligibility for the fund excludes anyone who receives income support payments such as JobSeeker, youth allowance or the carer payment.
According to quarterly data released in March, more than 645,000 people across Australia declared earnings in the past fortnight while receiving income support payments. This makes them ineligible for the disaster payment if they’re in an area where stay-at-home orders are enforced but also vulnerable to suddenly losing income.
Meaghan Sinclair, 26, lives in Coburg, a suburb of Melbourne, and has been caught up in this exclusion. She’s worked for a family-owned small business for six years. During the first lockdown, Sinclair’s shifts were cut to two days a week, which meant she had to use her savings to live.
When JobKeeper was rolled out, her hours were restored, but then cut to three days a week after the company began earning too much to qualify for JobKeeper. Sinclair applied for JobSeeker.
“I currently work 22.5 hours a week, and am managing to scrape through with rent, bills and other expenses,” she said. “This means I barely qualified for JobSeeker, but they managed to let me have $45 a fortnight.”
During this year’s lockdown, Sinclair was ineligible for the $500 a week she would have received from the COVID-19 disaster payment because of the relatively small amount she was earning from JobSeeker.
Sinclair’s worried about the future. Reduced hours and a paltry welfare payment has meant she’s burned through all her savings. She’s reduced her expenses and is living week to week. She needs a haircut, but has to plan around her rent and other bills.
“I had money put aside for a crisis, but I didn’t plan for a crisis that lasted 18 months,” she said.
Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union spokesman Jeremy Heywood tells Crikey the disaster payment had a number of flaws. He criticised the ineligibility of those on income supplement payments and that payments only start in the second week of a lockdown.
“The government wants to be seen to be doing something but these ridiculous conditions drastically reduce the number of people eligible for support,” he said. “It appears to be nothing more than penny-pinching at the expense of the people who need help the most.”
The union has called for Parliament to reconvene to immediately reintroduce income support measures that Australia had at the height of the pandemic because of Sydney’s recent outbreak.
Neither Morrison nor Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s office responded to questions about the decision to exclude income supplement payment recipients.