The Australian government has announced a phased roll back of the weekly disaster pay for people who suffered job loss due to the pandemic. The announcement was made by federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg on Wednesday, September 29, tying federal aid with vaccination rollout. The move comes at a time when the government is pushing to ease pandemic-related restrictions on businesses, starting from October.
According to the decision taken by the Scott Morrison government, the federal aid program for unemployed workers will be eased once 70% of the vaccine-eligible population in a State or territory is fully-vaccinated.
The easing will be done by setting aside automatic renewals of the aid, requiring workers to apply for it every week to receive payments. Furthermore, once the share of fully-vaccinated people reaches 80%, the payments will be eventually stopped.
More than 1.5 million working-age adults are currently receiving federal disaster pay. In New South Wales, the worst pandemic-affected State, and the Australian Capital Territory, the number of dependents on the program translates to more than a fifth of the working-age population.
Currently, the federal program provides a weekly payment of AUD 750 (approximately USD 543) for those who lost 20 or more working hours a week, and AUD 450 (USD 325) a week for those who lost between eight and 20 working hours.
Close to 2.16 million people have received these payments so far. Additionally, the federal government also runs a AUD 200 (USD 145) supplementary weekly payment for those who lost more than eight hours of work but receive other income support programs, like students and single parents. This payment has been received by 225,000 people so far.
The AUD 750 payment will be completely stopped after 80% vaccination rates are achieved. The payments will be cut down to a flat AUD 450 per week for the first week, and after that will be brought at par with the existing unemployment aid (JobKeeper) of AUD 350 (USD 253) for the second week, before being stopped entirely.
Supplementary payments will be cut down to half, at AUD 100 (USD 72) for the first week after the 80% vaccination mark, before being stopped entirely. Treasurer Frydenberg has also added that the payments will continue for “targeted” groups, usually small businesses affected by the pandemic.
Welfare groups have strongly criticized the government for the decision, calling it “unconscionable”. Cassandra Goldie of the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) said that it is “unconscionable to use broad vaccination rate data as the mechanism to cut off income support to people without paid work, regardless of whether a lockdown has lifted or what the actual vaccination rates are for a range of at-risk groups.”
“The last thing we should be doing is cutting off income supports, economic supports, that have been so crucial for the people who are fortunate enough to be eligible for them,” added Goldie. ACOSS also warned that migrant workers on temporary visas, who are ineligible for JobKeeper, will be left with no income if they are unable to find jobs before the program ends.
Close to 76.7% people in the vaccine-eligible age group of 16 and above have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, while the rate of full vaccination is at 52.6%, according to figures by the Department of Health.
As per current figures, Guardian estimates that New South Wales, the worst affected State in the country, will reach 70% vaccination rate by October 5 and 80% by October 18. The Australian Capital Territory will follow the NSW figures closely, by October 8 and October 21, respectively. This indicates that the two regions with the highest proportion of working-age population dependent on aid will soon stand to lose it entirely by the end of October.
Along with rolling back federal aid programs, the conservative Liberal-National coalition government of prime minister Scott Morrison is insisting on reopening the economy. The coalition has defended its decision today, making hopeful predictions that the reopening plans will allow workers to find employment by the time the disaster pay is completely rolled back.
This is despite the fact that Australia is currently facing a third wave of COVID-19 infections, with a recent weekly average of over 1,700 cases per day. Earlier this week, the total number of infections in Australia crossed the 100,000 mark, with a bulk of the cases reported in the past two months.
“I don’t know where the government is getting its advice about trying to paint this as an announcement of hope – for people who are hit by unemployment this will only strike fear for them,” said Goldie in an interview with Sky News.