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Many Sydneysiders are now eligible for the federal government’s $500-a-week COVID-19 disaster payment but applicants are being turned down because of a raft of exceptions and confusing eligibility rules.
People who cannot work because of state lockdowns that last more than a week can access the payments, with workers who have lost more than 20 hours entitled to $500 a week while those who have lost fewer hours receive $325. More than 6000 claims for the payment were made on Thursday.
Lauren Lancaster has had her shifts cut because of the lockdown but cannot access federal coronavirus payments.Credit:Kate Geraghty
Waitress Lauren Lancaster had her shifts at a bar in Sydney’s inner west cancelled for the last fortnight but she and three friends who tried to access the payments online received either rejections or system error notifications.
“It was really difficult to figure out the eligibility criteria in the first place,” said Ms Lancaster, 20. “The interface is totally unusable.”
Greater Sydney is in lockdown until July 9, but the state government has signalled it could be extended if daily case numbers did not drop.
Even if the system had worked for Ms Lancaster, she is unsure whether she would be able to access support because she has scholarship money from the University of Sydney in a term deposit. Anyone with more than $10,000 in “liquid assets”, such as savings for a car or a home loan deposit, is ineligible.
“All the Coalition politicians are like ‘you should be saving, young people should be fiscally responsible’ and they’re telling us we can’t access these disaster payments when we need them,” Ms Lancaster said.
Services Australia spokesman Hank Jongen said there had been no system issues stopping people from accessing the payment despite high traffic volumes because of the new financial year.
Asked whether term deposits or early withdrawals from superannuation counted as a “liquid asset”, Mr Jongen confirmed it included superannuation.
“Liquid assets are any funds readily available to you in cash or savings, or assets that can easily be changed into cash quickly,” he said.
Another rule says applicants have to have used up “any appropriate paid leave entitlements” but government media releases have clarified that does not include annual leave. Those receiving welfare, such as parenting or study payments, are also excluded.
Another requirement causing confusion is that only people who “can’t attend work” will get the payment.
Madeleine Stedman, who works at the entertainment and cultural venue Carriageworks in Redfern, said she was uncertain about whether that applied to her because while she has lost all but one shift, the venue remained open. “There are a lot of caveats about your work,” she said.
Mr Jongen said: “This payment is available for people who meet all of the payment eligibility rules, including that they are unable to attend work and have lost an income on or after day eight of the state-imposed health restrictions.”
Others have had a much more positive experience. Paul Waterson, chief executive of Australia Venue Co, which owns about 160 pubs and bars nationwide, said his staff who were forced to use the payment during Melbourne’s most recent lockdown had found the procedure painless.
“They were paid in a very timely manner; given it’s a self-declaration, it was pretty seamless,” Mr Waterson said.
He expects between 200 and 300 of his Sydney staff to use the payment for the current lockdown with the company’s help to navigate the system.
“The only thing that could’ve worked better [in Victoria] is that the process of restrictions easing was slow and that meant even a week or two after venues were open, we couldn’t give casuals the shifts they wanted and they couldn’t get the disaster payments.”
Unions NSW and the Restaurant and Catering Association both said a wage subsidy would have been a better way of helping workers, with the industry group arguing it would help ensure staff stayed with their employers.
“This exacerbates the problem of the skills shortage because when hospitality businesses, which are always the most restricted during lockdowns, are forced to stand down employees, many don’t return to hospitality,” said Wes Lambert, the association’s chief executive.
“A far more effective and straightforward process would have been to revive JobKeeper for anyone affected by this lockdown,” said Mark Morey, the state’s top union official.
Due to the staggered nature of lockdowns and federal coronavirus hotspot declarations, people who live and work in Sydney’s inner city, east and inner west are eligible for the payments from Thursday followed by the rest of the city, Blue Mountains, Central Coast and Wollongong from Sunday.
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