As Melbourne’s snap lockdown is extended for another seven days, small business owners are calling for the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme (or something like it) to be reinstated during times like this.
While the state government has announced grant funding for affected businesses in Victoria, without JobKeeper and other COVID-19 relief measures in place, entrepreneurs are saying that’s not enough.
At SmartCompany, we reached out to small businesses both in Melbourne and elsewhere, to ask whether the wage subsidy scheme should be reinstated, or whether something like it should automatically come into effect if and when snap lockdowns like this one are necessary.
The Council for Small Business Organisations Australia, for one, has called for the state and federal governments to work with the small business community to develop a standardised approach to snap lockdowns before they happen.
“Currently, announcements of small business support tend to drop days after the disruption has begun and anxiety has taken hold,” a COSBOA statement said.
“This can’t continue.”
For the most part, Aussie business owners agree.
Dale Reardon is the founder and chief of Travel For All, a platform sharing inclusive travel options for people with accessibility needs, and helping tourism operators make their businesses more accessible.
“The answer is just so obvious,” Reardon tells SmartCompany.
“Of course JobKeeper should be brought back.”
Businesses in the travel sector are still suffering from the lack of international travel, and with state border closures still a reality, they can’t count on domestic travel either.
Reardon points out that JobKeeper was always revenue-tested. Businesses that hadn’t seen a big enough drop in revenue weren’t eligible anyway.
If most businesses are out of the woods, he says, then they won’t be claiming anyway.
“All they had to do was make the income testing more regular or adjust those levels,” he adds.
“Why take crucial support away from those who really need it just because some businesses are doing fine?”
“I can’t go through that again”
Many noted that without rent relief, they’re facing payroll and other expenses this month, with no idea where the cash is going to come from.
Eli Censor Hazell, the owner of seven KX Pilates studios in Melbourne, said she is facing $20,000 in rent payments, and has been forced to stand down 50 staff members without pay.
The snap lockdown has left her feeling “really deflated”, she says.
She would like to see JobKeeper reinstated in a way that is ongoing, or that comes into effect when snap lockdowns occur, she adds.
“My staff are living pay check to check and we can’t help them.”
Melbourne-based SalamaTea Restaurant and Sunshine Cafe both employ teams of refugees and asylum seekers.
Owner Hamad Allahyari tells SmartCompany he has lost at least $4,000 in revenue during this snap lockdown so far.
He predicts his business can survive about three more weeks.
“After that, I won’t be able to pay my staff or the rent,” he says.
The support package from the government came too late to offer any real reassurance, and there are still question marks over just how long this latest lockdown will last.
Allahyari wants to see the state government thinking a little more carefully about how snap lockdowns affect small businesses like his, and planning ahead to make sure they’re supported.
Currently, it’s difficult to plan for anything, as the government “keeps moving the goalposts”, he says.
And that’s taking its toll.
“I can’t afford to work for free anymore … I need to look after my family. Last year was very tough, and I can’t go through that again,” he says.
“If the Victorian government is going to continue to use lockdowns as a strategy against COVID-19, we need a longer-term, more stable support mechanism.”
Supporting vulnerable workers
Business owners’ concern for staff members, particularly casuals, came up again and again in these conversations.
Many of the entrepreneurs we heard from are less concerned about their own livelihoods as they are about their staff. Hospitality workers, in particular, are often low-income or vulnerable employees.
Casual workers who had been with their employers for less than 12 months were never eligible for JobKeeper in the first place, and workers who are not Australian citizens or permanent residents were not eligible for any government support, including JobSeeker payments.
If small businesses can’t keep those people employed, “those already vulnerable people will struggle to survive,” says Marjorie Tenchavez, founder of Welcome Merchant, an e-commerce platform for refugee-owned businesses.
JobKeeper worked once, she notes. And even if it didn’t directly support all employees, it did give businesses some breathing room.
“We need to see the same level of support, compassion, and understanding for our beloved local businesses to continue operating as the beating heart of our communities.”
Speaking to SmartCompany, Sally Sinclair, chief executive of the National Employment Services Agency, estimates there are some 500,000 casual workers in Victoria.
During snap lockdowns, many of them will find themselves without any earnings at all.
And for many businesses, the package the Victorian government has announced won’t go far towards covering payroll.
As far as Sinclair is concerned, the federal government has the means and the ability to switch on a support mechanism — whether it’s JobKeeper or something slightly different — particularly as it looks increasingly likely this particular lockdown will be extended.
“Federally, they’re going to have to look at how they can switch these things on and off to ensure that businesses can keep going, and keep engaging their staff,” she says.
It’s not inconceivable that support could become available almost overnight for businesses registered in Victoria, for example. Something that would keep staff connected to their employer.
That would alleviate some of the anxiety for both business owners and their employees, she notes, especially now other COVID-19 support structures come to an end.
“There is so much now which is working against small businesses,” she says.
“I really worry that some businesses won’t come out the other side of this now.”