Casual and low-income workers across the country are scrambling to get enough money together for rent and other essential items, after the federal government announced it would not extend the former government’s COVID disaster payment scheme in the face of surging infections.
On Wednesday, federal treasurer Jim Chalmers said the government had no room in its budget to continue extending the weekly $750 pandemic leave disaster payment that had offered a lifeline to workers around the country, for the better part of the pandemic.
“The COVID support payments were designed by our predecessors to end at a certain point, and to restart them would cost a considerable amount of money,” Chalmers said.
“What we have tried to be is upfront about the challenges that we face in the budget. Unfortunately, there is not room in the budget for every good idea or to extend every program, even good ones, indefinitely.”
As a result, countless workers—most of them under the age of 35, working in heavily casualised industries—told VICE they “honestly just don’t know” what they’ll do to make rent. Others say they’ve barely been able to scrape by, forced to either dip into emergency savings for those who have them, or turn to other means, for those who don’t.
One of them was Ruby Lewis, a casual residential homelessness worker based in New South Wales, who recently came out of isolation after being off work with COVID-19 for the last week. It was her third infection this year.
Lewis said while she was sick she had to cancel three nine-hour overnight shifts which, once penalty rates are factored in, usually “sets me up for the fortnight”.
“And so this next pay I’m going to have nothing,” she said. “I was really relying on that government cash.”
The pandemic sick leave payment was first introduced to workers in Victoria by the former Morrison government, back in August 2020, before it was later rolled out to workers around the country nearly one year later.
Under the federal COVID-19 Disaster Payment scheme, those who stood to lose more than 20 hours of work a week would be eligible for weekly payments of $750, while those out of pocket for between eight and 20 hours of work were eligible for payments of $450 a week.
The former Morrison government always planned to cut the payments on June 30—but some workers had no idea.
Billie Barton, a casual worker at Melbourne's Swinburne University, was one of them. She told VICE she didn’t know the payments had been wound down until she logged into MyGov to lodge a claim.
“I had just, sadly, exited the MyGov app [where I saw the payment was no longer available] and realised I got COVID four days too late,” Barton said, with a laugh. “I’m not sure if there was that much effort made to communicate that it was ending.”
It’s a recurring theme. Lewis, and other workers who spoke to VICE, said they had counted on turning to the payment only to find that it had ended days—or even weeks—ago. Lewis said she “wasn’t stressed” about her situation until she logged in to make a claim on Sunday.
After the payment was rolled out to workers around the country in July last year, prime minister Anthony Albanese—who was opposition leader at the time—welcomed the measure, but warned it still risked leaving some households and small businesses in the lurch who he feared would “fall through the cracks”.
Twelve months after making those comments, it is now Albanese who critics say is leaving workers to fall through the cracks without federal pandemic leave support, just as free access to rapid antigen tests for seniors and concession card holders is wound down as well.
This week, unions and even leaders from across the broader business community, urged Albanese to consider breathing new life into the pandemic payment scheme, even if only to create a more narrowly targeted design.
The day after the payments were axed, Australian Council of Trade Unions president, Michele O’Neil, said the government had done away with one of Australia’s best defences against the virus, just as infection rates are expected to surge.
“This decision will result in workers working while they are sick, which we have known since the first days of the pandemic is a certain way to more rapidly spread the virus and put more people at risk,” O’Neil said.
“If we are asking people to isolate to keep the community safe then we need to ensure that they are supported to do that. No one should suffer such a big financial penalty for doing the right thing,” she said.
The sentiment was shared by Nick McIntosh, national assistant secretary of the Transport Workers’ Union, who said that while this is a “mess of Morrison’s making” the new federal government needs to “step up” to support workers in the gig economy with no support, as well as those working in the aviation industry who are hanging on by a thread.
“We have lived through the dire consequences of COVID outbreaks in transport supply chains, with shelves emptied and rural communities virtually cut off from essential supplies,” McIntosh said.
About two weeks later, Business Council of Australia head Jennifer Westacott came out in support of a rethink for extended support for those struggling through infection while self-employed, along with the employees of small businesses.
In an interview, she urged the government to look at designing a highly targeted sick-leave safety net, so that businesses can continue to stay open, and to prevent rampant absenteeism once again putting the economy in a chokehold.
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