Coalition urged to expand Covid disaster payments after workers barred from program | Welfare

Coalition urged to expand Covid disaster payments after workers barred from program | Welfare

Australia’s peak welfare body has urged the federal government to expand its Covid-19 disaster payments, after Victorian workers who had their hours slashed but maintained a small income learned they were barred from the program.

Some 21,500 Victorians lodged claims for the long-awaited payments of $325 or $500 when applications opened on Tuesday, but a little more than 5,500 were finalised.

While the government said that claims would be paid the following day, new details about the eligibility rules suggested many will be left without help.

Before applications opened on Tuesday, the Department of Home Affairs confirmed “if an individual is receiving income from paid employment, they will not be eligible”.

The government was already facing criticism for the strict criteria, which blocks those with access to more than $10,000 in savings, known as the liquid assets test, as well as the decision to also declare people already receiving welfare payments ineligible.

Cassandra Goldie, the Australian Council of Social Service chief executive, questioned the decision to bar these people from accessing help.

“We have urged the government from the outset to ensure these disaster payments are delivered rapidly to people who have lost paid work as a result of a lockdown,” she said.

“This means ensuring people don’t have to jump through multiple hoops to get access to support. For example, many will be excluded because of the liquid assets test. We’re also concerned about people being ineligible if they’ve got some paid work, even though they’ve lost hours.

“These criteria didn’t apply to the disaster recovery payments delivered to victims of the 2019/20 bushfires, for example, to help ensure people got access quickly.

“We urge the federal government to provide these disaster payments to anyone who has lost paid work as a result of the lockdown.”

The disaster payments, which apply in a federally declared Covid-19 hotspot, are worth $325 for a person who has lost 20 hours of work, or $500 for those who declare losing 20 hours or more.

Those who might have lost multiple shifts but retained at least one would be unable to access the payment. The rule could be expected to affect workers in industries such as hospitality, where take away services are still allowed, and retailers where click and collect is still in place.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, warned last week that people who applied for the payment would need to “accept and acknowledge that they meet the … criteria”. He flagged the possibility of “retrospective compliance activity”.

Services Australia, which is processing claims, has also confirmed the payments will be taxed.

The ACTU secretary, Sally McManus, said that meant “a payment which was already too small will provide even less to people who desperately need financial support”.

McManus added that some people might have been put off from applying due to the eligibility “hurdles” and because they are “justifiably fearful of a robodebt-style recouping effort”.

The ACTU has called for another version of the jobkeeper wage subsidy to be implemented.

Jeremy Heywood, a spokesman for the Australian Unemployed Workers Union, said the payments were an “absolute debacle”.

“We have been contacted by multiple people confused by the incredibly complicated requirements that seem to suggest that a microscopically small number of people will actually be eligible for this grossly inadequate payment,” he said.

Data released last week to a Senate committee revealed there had been a surge in Victorian applications for the jobseeker payment, with officials telling parliament 7,900 claims had been made since the lockdown began.

Goldie said others on welfare payments who had been blocked from accessing the Covid-19 disaster support could also see their incomes hit.

“We know that almost one in three women and one in five men who rely on jobseeker also receive some kind of paid work,” she said.

“We’ve heard from people on these payments who are very worried that because they have kept Centrelink informed of their earnings they are on very low amounts of jobseeker, and there is a lag before Centrelink registers they need the full amount – so they are at risk of having zero income for a time.”

The government said on Tuesday that “thousands” of claims had been made after applications opened on Tuesday morning.

A home affairs spokesperson said the government was “committed to supporting Australians impacted by Covid-19”.

Victorian officials say the state is “on track” for an easing of restrictions by Friday, after only two cases were reported on Tuesday.

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