Victoria went into lockdown for the fourth time on 27 May leaving thousands of casual and insecure workers without shifts – and without the federal wage subsidy that had sustained many over the previous 14 months.
Guardian Australia asked readers who lost work during the lockdown how they planned to get by and almost 200 people responded. For some, the Covid disaster payment announced by the federal government on Thursday – of up to $500 – will provide some relief. For others, it’s simply not enough.
Most of those out of work are young
More than 40% of the people who responded to the survey were under 30 and another 32% were aged 30 to 39.
Just over half of all respondents worked in hospitality and about 28% worked in retail. About one-fifth worked in education, mostly as substitute teachers.
Some had some savings, maintained by jobseeker payments last year. Others had none, their savings worn down by repeated lockdowns.
Younger respondents were more likely to be living at home or to say they would rely on financial assistance from their parents to get through two weeks without pay. They were also more likely to be receiving some form of income assistance through Centrelink.
That means they are not eligible for further support. Amber Hemmes, 23, receives Austudy as an education student, but she relies on casual retail shifts to get by. She received a letter at the start of the lockdown informing her she had been stood down, but because she receives some form of income assistance she is ineligible for the federal government’s disaster payment.
“It’s kind of like you are getting kicked while you are down,” she said. “You are getting one income support payment so you don’t get any extra.”
The feeling of helplessness was shared by many who responded to the survey. Asked what they would do if the lockdown was extended, seven people just said “cry”.
“What is there to do?” one person, who works in the arts sector and received a disability support pension, said. “I don’t have the power to improve my situation and the government doesn’t care to. High rent is a non-negotiable part of living in this city and my landlord has no interest in concessions because he lost his other income last year. I suppose I will slowly starve myself, and hope.”
‘I might have a nap for lunch’
Tobin Ayton moved to Melbourne in April. He and his partner chose to live in Victoria despite the risk of extended lockdowns because of its new pet rental laws, which make it easier for them to find a home for themselves and their dog and two cats. Ayton, 22, had been working at a restaurant for two weeks when the lockdown was called.
“I have been using Afterpay to buy vouchers to buy food,” he said. “I have also had to get in contact with places where we have to pay bills to say, look, because of the lockdown I am going to have to work something out, I can’t pay this week.”
Ayton said he has been sleeping instead of eating.
“Being so broke and not being able to afford food, I might have a nap for lunch just to avoid the feeling of being hungry.”
He is hoping he will be eligible for the federal emergency payment, but will struggle to make it through until applications open on Tuesday.
Many of Melbourne’s casual workers are not eligible for any income support because they are on temporary or student visas.
“I am just a migrant casual worker, I am not receiving any form of support and nor am I entitled to,” another retail worker told Guardian Australia. “I am using my savings at the moment, but a week’s lost income is a lot. My parents are going through a lot with Covid in Malaysia (it’s averaging 6,000-7,000 cases a day) so I can’t rely on them, nor do I have the heart too. I have a partner to help me out, which is lovely, but I still feel pretty depressed, though, not being able to support myself.”
A hospitality worker from inner Melbourne said they were relying on support from their family and their partners’ parents, who they had been living with since the first lockdown began.
“Everything is all so uncertain which has caused myself to think uncertain thoughts,” they said. “The job I am currently employed at wasn’t doing too well to begin with after the last lockdown last year, so now that we’ve gone into another lockdown I’m not too sure if I’ll even have a job there any more.”
Marie, 30, lost her financial services job in May last year and is now working casually in a cafe. She moved back in with her parents and has been looking for full-time work since November.
She had put away just over $10,000 for a house deposit but the long lockdown last winter, plus the difficulty of finding full-time work, is eating into her savings.
“Obviously I am not in a position where I am going to be starving and I am glad that people who are in that position are going to get some financial support from the government, but I do think the eligibility criteria is not fair,” she said. “We are not able to work due to government policy and government decisions.”
‘I would go to work sick to pay the bills’
People aged over 60 were more likely to say they would draw down on superannuation, or from their mortgage, to get through the week. One said their financial survival plan was to “not eat, stay cold, and despise the Victorian government with every fibre of my existence”.
Another said they were trying to avoid dipping into retirement savings and had already pushed their planned retirement out to 75. “The mortgage is shaky as it is,” they said. “We’ll see what happens.”
“I would now go to work even if feeling sick just to pay the bills. This is the view of many casuals I know, but it could put others at risk … I can understand why the virus can spread. The federal government needs to look after us casuals in lockdown, be it a week, two weeks, a month or more.”
Gayle Cruickshank, 62, lives in central Victoria and was able to return to work on Friday, when the lockdown lifted in regional areas. She is a self-employed gardener.
“A week without income puts me so far behind,” she said. “I didn’t manage. I have to ring people and say, ‘that direct debit won’t be there’. It’s embarrassing for me because I hate owing anybody. But that’s how I live – I work for myself and I live week to week.”
One respondent admitted to getting a coronavirus test just so they could access the Victorian government’s $450 coronavirus test isolation payment, which is payable to people who do not have sick leave but need to isolate while awaiting test results.
“I went out to get a Covid test just so I could claim the $450 payment for isolating, which feels dodgy and is also a bit of a source of guilt,” they said. “I feel like I shouldn’t just get a test and clog up resources just because I need cash.”
Sex work, selling possessions to get by
Two women said they were considering online sex work to cover the bills.
“I am eating into a credit card even further to get by, creating debt so that I can buy food,” a female retail worker said. After rent, she will have just over $100 left to cover all her bills. “I’m seriously thinking of doing sex work online in order to bring some income in to get by for now. But honestly, this lockdown and the lack of financial support has solidified my leaving Victoria in a few months to find work in disability/health care.”
Another woman who is currently a sex worker said her industry is left out of the conversation about wage subsidies – even though it is expressly forbidden under lockdown rules.
“No one ever talks about sex work,” she said. “My whole industry is closed and it’s almost impossible to find information about when we’ll open up. Sex workers have been completely ignored during the pandemic.”
Some people told Guardian Australia they had as little as $4 left to survive the week, others had nothing.
More than a dozen people said they would sell their possessions to get by: records, furniture, clothes, music equipment.
“I may try and sell some of my things online otherwise, however you cannot meet up to pick up and sell things online which makes things extremely difficult,” a teenager who worked a casual food service job said.
Moving back home
Rebecca is, she says, one of the lucky ones: she and her partner moved in with his parents’ so now only pay $100 a week rent.
“The downside is I am 32 and I am living with my in-laws,” she said. “I shouldn’t complain about that – I am really lucky – but it wasn’t in the plan.”
This time last year they had their own place in Clifton Hill and Rebecca had a full-time job – although her partner was unable to work during lockdown, so they were relying on one salary.
She couldn’t manage full-time hours with the weeks of placement required for an education degree so quit her job just before Melbourne’s second lockdown. She now works as a casual teaching assistant. When classrooms are closed, there is no work. Her partner’s minimum wage position, also as a teaching assistant, makes her ineligible for Centrelink.
She may be eligible for the federal emergency grant, but feels awkward about claiming it. “I feel like I’m in quite a lucky position … it’s silly, it’s not like they are going to give double to someone else who needs it if we don’t take it, but I know there are others worse off.”
Most would take the vaccine
Most people – about 71% of respondents – said they were not yet eligible to be vaccinated but would get it as soon as they were able, or were currently trying to book an appointment. Twelve per cent had already received their first jab.
Hemmes supports a suggestion made by some epidemiologists that young people – who often work in casual, service industry, high contact roles, and are therefore responsible for most of the spread of Covid – should be vaccinated early.
“We were wearing masks while working until that rule was lifted, and I found it quite stressful because there were a lot of customers who would either not wear a mask or weren’t wearing it correctly,” she said. “I have friends who are at high risk so if I was to get Covid I could give it to them. I would get [vaccinated] as soon as possible”.
About 8% of respondents had not yet decided if they would get vaccinated, and 12% said they would not get vaccinated even if they were eligible.