This morning, at a Centrelink in Sydney’s Inner West, 35 people were waiting in line at 6.45 am. By 7.00 am—more than an hour before the centre was due to open—there were more than 70. While waiting in line, some people shared a cigarette.
It’s Tuesday and by now, you or someone you love has either lost their job due to the state-wide closures of non-essential businesses, or had their employment situation drastically change as a result of the coronavirus lockdowns. Our government has announced a temporary raise to JobSeeker payments (previously called NewStart), if you want to know what this means for you, check out The Guardian’s write up.
For those suddenly finding themselves unemployed or underemployed, the systematically gutted welfare system isn’t providing much in the way of positive vibes or confidence: yesterday the MyGov site went down after more than 55,000 people tried to access it at once. Considering it’ll need to serve a possible 814,000 people whose employment has or will be disrupted by the coronavirus… a capacity of 55k ain’t it chief.
As Sam G Eacott, a publicist, writer and the former events producer of Heaps Gay, wrote, “the lines at Centrelink yesterday were’t actually because of Coronavirus. They happened because a virus hit Australia at a time when the Liberal government specifically created a welfare system that is hostile to new and old applicants.”
Joshua Badge, a writer and academic at Deakin University agrees, the system is deliberately violent. “I’ve been helping friends sign up to JobSeeker, many of them for the first time,” he explains. “They’ve all noticed similar things: how challenging it is to apply, how frustrating and demeaning the process is.”
“The recent boost to JobSeeker is an admission that the previous levels were unlivable,” he says, noting that it’s common for students to regularly skip meals to pay rent. “There’s no going back. If the government tries to reduce unemployment payments to impossible levels again, there will be mass protests.”
Even with the raise, which is in place for the next six months, “the system still leaves people vulnerable,” says Badge. “Since the government has defunded services like Centrelink, wait times on new applications will increase. A new claim submitted yesterday might not come back until May. People in crisis can’t wait for 6+ weeks for survival money. The system needs to be adequately funded so it can be efficient.”
Narrow eligibility requirements are another roadblock: “Many people in trouble won’t be able to access rescue payments. If you lose your job but your partner still has work, you probably won’t be eligible even if you’re doing it rough.”
The Australian government has been criticised for its failure to clearly communicate about hygiene and isolation measures that could have slowed the spreading of the virus, and potentially slowed this rapid job loss. At a press conference on February 27th, when there were still just a handful of cases in Australia Bill Bowtell (adjunct professor at the Kirby Institute for infection and immunity at the University of New South Wales) noted that the word “plan” was thrown around 32 times. Unfortunately, the conference was devoid of any concrete actions, and neither the Prime Minister, or Chief Medical Officer even mentioned the words hygiene or social distancing.
While we don’t know if in another world (where infected cruise ship passengers weren’t being released to roam around NSW) that might have been enough, Jackson, a yoga teacher we spoke with, feels the current situation has been exacerbated by “the general public’s lack of response and failure to take the threat seriously.” The refusal to take social distancing seriously “has created the negative results for the industries that are most affected.”
The impacts of the coronavirus are still rippling through Australia, and while the economic ones take a backseat to the threat to public health, we wanted to take a pause to look at how we got here. Syrup spoke with a few people employed across tertiary education, teaching, live music, pubs, yoga studios, retail and a gym to about the sudden shifts in their realities and how they’re facing down a coronavirus ravaged job landscape and an inadequate safety net.
How did the coronavirus begin to impact your work and industry?
“Universities already expect casual tutors to do hours of unpaid work, such as student consultation and answering emails. Many universities are moving courses online or have done so already, potentially creating more work for overburdened and underpaid casuals.”
“Eighty per cent of the academic workforce is casually employed, meaning that they don’t receive benefits, leave, or overtime. Universities might start to reduce or freeze hiring, meaning there will be even less job security than before. Nobody is sure they’ll have any income in a few weeks.” — Joshua, academic
“It has absolutely ravaged the live music industry. I wasn’t solely relying on gigs for income so I haven’t been hit too hard personally, it’s just a really hard blow to our already crippled music scene. My teaching hasn’t been too harshly impacted yet (though the situation does seem to change every few hours).” — Ramon, musician and music teacher
“About three weeks ago we started to see class numbers begin to drop and more students calling wanting to either postpone or cancel their memberships. Many were mostly afraid to come to class and be in groups of large people.” — Jackson, yoga teacher
“Working in all customer facing environments, I felt it first through watching other people. In retail, people were still shopping and spending on non-essentials, but they were asking me questions about the virus and behaving a little more cautiously. At the gym, so many people kept coming because it was an outlet, and were actually really sad when classes started to be cut and they couldn’t attend them.” — Sherene, retail and gym assistant
“At first we noticed a moderate drop in patronage, however as the restrictions on social distancing came into effect it became much more extreme and began to seriously affect our revenue.” — Luke, pubs and hospitality worker
When did it begin to affect you personally, and how did you react?
“The first real hit I took is when my band had to cancel the U.K. tour we were planning. I was upset but I think in the music industry you learn to roll with the punches pretty quickly and so I took it as a chance to focus on developing other projects here at home.” — Ramon, musician and music teacher
“I take an immunosuppressant medication, so this has been on my radar for a while, but I have been socially isolating as best I can. It’s been a general anxiety sitting underneath the surface.” — Jackson, yoga teacher
“The general anxiety of knowing it was coming, I stocked up on food about two weeks ago in case I got sick or was quarantined.” — Luke, pubs and hospitality worker
“To be completely honest I did not fully understand the severity of the virus and was shocked at how rapidly Australia’s confirmed cases increased over the past few weeks. Now of course, I’m aware of how important social distancing is, but I’ve still seen people on my Instagram out partying and drinking and behaving like nothing’s wrong. Saying things like “corona who?” or captioning their posts and stories with stupid things like “Just tryna live my life.” Like, yes dear, we all are trying to live.” — Sherene, retail and gym assistant
What’s happened to your work?
“In terms of teaching I’ve shifted from instrument group tutor to online music education content creator. In both of these cases it’s not the same at all, so much of music is about that personal connection and interaction and a lot of that is lost when you’re communicating through a screen.” — Ramon, musician and music teacher
“All of the studios where I was teaching adapted quite quickly to stricter hygiene measures and distance requirements. Unfortunately, with gyms being classified as non-essential, all yoga studios have now had to shut their doors. Many studios attempted to or are still trying to go the route of offering online streamed classes, or prerecorded classes, but I doubt this is enough to sustain an entire business. Subsidies and help from the government will be needed for them to reopen/survive.” — Jackson, yoga teacher
“As of yesterday we are officially closed and I have no work.” — Luke, pubs and hospitality worker
“I work in a gym that has been shut down due to the lockdowns. I also work two casual retail jobs which frankly I’m expecting to shutter soon too. That said, whether they are open or not many companies are unable to roster casual staff, due to the virus and budget constraints, my shifts were getting cut before this week’s new measures.” — Sherene, retail and gym assistant
What do you think is coming next for your industry? What’s the key to your industry’s survival?
“Vice-Chancellors must guarantee paid leave for all uni staff, including casuals, for any coronavirus related absences including for any shutdowns, compulsory isolation or caring responsibilities. The government should also provide a targeted stimulus package for tertiary sector workers. Many casuals will face extreme financial hardship in the coming weeks if they aren’t already.” — Joshua, academic
“I think that what’s likely is that we’re going to take a big hit—there will be casualties in the form of closed venues, artists throwing in the towel, music tuition numbers plummeting. What I hope is that in this time of isolation that the absence of live music and music education makes us realise its value. Maybe once this is over, all of the art we’ve been working on gets released and this sparks a creative renaissance?” — Ramon, musician and music teacher
“Now that [yoga] studios are closed, many teachers will go the route of offering streamed or pre-recorded classes online. I think it’s yet to be seen whether this will really take off or not. There are already many free resources for online yoga classes available online.” — Jackson, yoga teacher
“It’s gonna be a few months before we open probably, but the hospitality industry is gonna be fine. Whether the small businesses will survive being shut that long is a different question.” — Luke, pubs and hospitality worker
“I really hope our gym’s client base remains strong. It makes sense if we can’t use them anymore, but it’s still sad to see people canceling gym memberships due to the virus. For so many people the gym is their biggest form of escapism and self improvement. I loved my gym environment so much I made it my workplace, afterall. It’s what’s impacting my mental health the most: the financial stress of being out of work and not having the space where I felt the happiest anymore.” — Sherene, retail and gym assistant
How are you going to stay afloat over the next little while and how do you feel?
“Everyone is very, very stressed. People are dealing with anxiety and working through the stages of grief. My main thoughts for the last two weeks have been about how I’m going to afford to eat and pay rent. As businesses close, limit spending and freeze hiring more and more people will go onto JobSeeker and look for work. There were 16 job seekers per job before COVID-19, and that number is about to skyrocket.” — Joshua, academic
“I’m lucky that the company I work with is trying their best to keep their doors open for as long as safely possible. While many schools are cancelling all band lessons, I’m still being paid the same to create online musical education content so hopefully that will keep me going for the next lil while. I am cautiously optimistic about the future of the music industry—we’re a creative field so I guess we just have to get creative with how we tackle this new problem right?” — Ramon, musician and music teacher
“I will be going to Centrelink to get by, at least for the meantime. I will try my hand at some online classes, but this will most likely be for my friends and won’t be enough in the short-term to pay my rent and bills. I feel worried and anxious of course, I do love teaching and wanted to continue. But I understand the measures the government is taking, as the vast majority of people I see around me in Sydney are not taking this virus seriously enough.” — Jackson, yoga teacher
“I’m applying for Centrelink while I evaluate my options going forward. I feel mostly fine, a little down and a little anxious at times but overall not too worried.” — Luke, pubs and hospitality worker
“Luckily I live at home with my mum, and I’m pretty comfortable being frugal. It’s just a big blow to my plans this year which was working on my career, and securing a little more financial and emotional prosperity. I feel like life has been put on hold and I’m standing still, even moving backwards almost, in terms of progressing in my career and with my studies. I know this doesn’t compare to people losing loved ones or being in complete lock downs, but being out of work and having so many uncertainties is incredibly daunting and stressful.” — Sherene, retail and gym assistant
How do you think your industry could have better handled this?
“Enforcing social distancing more strongly would have helped to slow the spread, but realistically licensed venues were almost inevitably going to close at some point. I think it’s natural for everyone to want to try and make as much money as they can before they’re forcibly shut down, I just wish that had happened sooner.” — Luke, pubs and hospitality worker
“In all honesty I’m not entirely sure. Yoga teaching is such a personal thing and relies on face to face/personal connection. I certainly believe the studios I worked for took the right precautions to keep classes safe. Online streaming is currently the only real revenue stream if studios are closed, but again, these are available for free all over the internet, so it’s yet to be seen whether this will take off. It’s the general public’s lack of response and failure to take the threat seriously that has created the negative results for the industries that are most affected.” — Jackson, yoga teacher
“I think my gym handled it as well as they possibly could have, and members were appreciative of us trying to remain open until the very end. Staff were cleaning and sanitising around and PT’s in my home club were also quietly helping out where they could. The health industry overall is a growing one, I don’t think there will be too much economic impact on us hopefully. In terms of traditional brick and mortar retail… it’s a dying industry and it’ll have a longer recovery.” — Sherene, retail and gym assistant