By Matt Jowett
This story is part of the My Corona series. We’re publishing personal stories about life in the pandemic, the challenges of lockdowns and building back fairer.
I can’t help but feel a sharp sense of existential dread and loss whenever someone asks, “So, what do you do for work?”
When COVID-19 decimated the events industry in 2020 – an industry in which I had worked for 15 years – I had contracts lined up with Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Pro Bono Australia, Live Nation and Crown Melbourne, and even with an NGO that took me to the UN Headquarters in New York. I’d recently worked on tours for Adele and Coldplay. I was truly hitting my career stride.
All that disappeared over a period of two months. I lost contracts worth tens of thousands of dollars, representing my ability to pay my bills and credit cards, pay down my HECS, contribute to my retirement and keep a roof over my head.
As the federal and state governments dragged their feet on announcing financial support – and other measures around evictions, utility relief and mental health access – my only option was to withdraw money from my super. I lost around a third of it in tax, as this was just weeks before the COVID policy of tax-free early super access was announced.
I never had much super to begin with, having spent years working mostly casual and freelance jobs, and what I withdrew was a majority of the money that should have been gathering interest for my retirement. I shudder to think how much that loss represents, and how far back it will set my retirement age – but it wasn’t so much a choice as a necessity.
In April 2020, once a policy agenda for support was in place, I attempted to access JobKeeper. As a sole trader I found the application process very confusing and, after failing to gain access to it, like many Australians I landed in line at Centrelink for JobSeeker. At that point I thought little of it – with the Coronavirus Supplement in place it was a similar level of support anyway. I would later learn that being a ‘welfare recipient’ would place major limits on my options and compound the pandemic’s impacts.
With so many barriers to returning to work in events, or any industry at that point, I felt the need to go back to uni and reskill. I shifted to Youth Allowance, just as that payment halved with the end of the Coronavirus Supplement – as if Coronavirus itself had ended.
I had access to the State Government’s Utility Relief Grant Scheme, and micro grants from NGOs like Support Act helped get me through. In late 2020 I managed to get a few days a week of casual work at a local footwear retail store. All these combined bits of income were still not enough to make ends meet, but they kept the rent paid. I even got approached in 2021 with an event contract to deliver a small event in October; the first time I’d had an offer of event work since early 2020.
This brings me to the situation we’re in now. If 2020 was characterised by a sentiment of unity and support – ‘we’re all in this together’ – 2021 has been the year the crisis continued but the support, largely, did not.
As COVID-19 came back with a mutated vengeance, and with it the necessary lockdowns and restrictions, the Coronavirus Supplement did not return for social security recipients and nor did the JobKeeper program. Instead, a range of one-off disaster support payments have been announced, but for millions of Australians in my position of surviving on a mix of paid work and partial social security payments these schemes were not available, despite losing work.
As retail shut down, and that new contract decided it was too risky and cancelled, I found myself struggling through Victoria’s fourth and fifth lockdowns on around $600 a fortnight – barely enough to cover rent and about half my average income when I’d been working. I was constantly frustrated to find I was locked out of federal and state assistance while adhering to state lockdowns that kept me from work.
I understand the need for these public health measures, and am generally very supportive of them. What I don’t understand is setting the 2021 JobSeeker rate – $630 a fortnight – at around half that of 2020 – $1,200 a fortnight – and excluding those struggling to survive on it from any other support while lockdowns and other restrictions are an ongoing feature of our lives.
If 2020 was characterised by a sentiment of unity and support – ‘we’re all in this together’ – 2021 has been the year the crisis continued but the support, largely, did not.
I regularly have to put off paying bills so I can eat, and I go weeks eating no-name two-minute noodles or 90-cent tins of tuna with a small bowl of rice. I postpone repairs to items or vet check-ups for my pets, I’ve cancelled much-needed psychology and dental appointments to ensure I can pay rent. I cancelled any subscription or membership I could. Without a gym membership and with a drastically reduced grocery budget my health is not what it used to be. Outside of lockdowns I politely decline friends’ invitations to social gatherings if there’s any kind of cost, and feel ashamed to admit it’s because I can’t afford it.
On recently announcing the return of some of the financial support that had been removed, Scott Morrison said, “The priority is to ensure we’re there to support those that need that help … this is the task, we will come through this lockdown … and on the other side we come back strongly, that’s what we saw last year.”
To that I say: Look a little harder. As someone on a welfare payment I have not been eligible for the lockdown support payments that were supposedly for “anyone who lost income and hours”.
And much of the support that has been temporarily reinstated is only for NSW. Where is it for the rest of us, for the rest of 2021? Where was it for Victoria’s almost back-to-back fourth and fifth lockdowns?
Now in our sixth lockdown, I’ve yet again lost casual work. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to access disaster payments or not. It has sent me into an awfully dark head space.
I don’t know how people in similar positions to mine, here at the bottom of the rungs – the casuals, students, those with disability or on single parent payments – will ever recover their losses.
I’m 34 years old, I’ve left a career built over 15 years in an industry that will take years to return to its previous scale, I’m back in university restricting my availability for work, I have next to nothing left in my superannuation. I am broke, stressed, worried, defeated, anxious, and physically sick from it all.
The future for me looks, frankly, bloody grim.