Coronavirus stretches Australia welfare agency to the limit

Queues outside welfare offices stretched for blocks, the main government website crashed, and hundreds of thousands of people suddenly found themselves without a job as Australia this week tightened restrictions designed to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.The federal government has warned that as many as one million Australians could find themselves out of work in the coming days as a result of the shutdown.

Rich was at work in a bar in the western city of Perth on Sunday evening when Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a second stimulus package to support the economy. Rich, who preferred to share only his first name, said he immediately realised he and his colleagues were about to lose their jobs.

“All pubs, gyms, cafes are to be closed so we’re all out of work,” the 29-year-old explained. “I suppose I am still technically employed but who knows when the pubs and restaurants can reopen.”

Cafes and restaurants are still allowed to serve takeaway food and drinks, but the government has hinted that this could change if Australians do not practice adequate physical distancing.

Australia: One million jobs to be lost over pandemic (2:23)

Rich headed to his local Centrelink office to sign up for welfare payments.

“I got there two hours early to beat the queues,” he said. “Not sure what I’ll do going forward … hopefully, my partner keeps her job.”

Non-essential services were ordered to close this week across Australia as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases continued to increase. Restrictions announced on Sunday evening have become progressively stronger, with new measures being announced daily.

To keep the economy going, the government announced two large stimulus packages worth 84 billion Australian dollars ($50bn) in quick succession. Both packages were passed by a reduced-in-size Parliament on Monday evening.

‘Depression-era’
A key element of the stimulus is a fortnightly 550 Australian dollar ($332) welfare supplement for the unemployed, which will be paid for the next six months on top of existing payments.

The government has also announced that “individuals in financial stress” will be able to access their superannuation retirement funds

In Sydney, Alex had been working at an aviation imports company since November. He found himself out of work at the weekend because of the dramatic drop in business.

“Once China went into lockdown, less cargo started to come through,” 25-year-old Alex told Al Jazeera. With one month left on his probation, Alex was eager to keep his job so offered to reduce his working hours. His employer agreed.

“I really tried to go above and beyond, so after they started cutting hours, I finally felt safe,” Alex said. “Then I was blindsided with a termination of employment letter and a meeting telling me to pack up and leave. Within five minutes, I was heading towards my car.”

‘Stuck in a loop’
Alex is currently trying to sign up to Centrelink to access welfare support but says the website continues to have significant problems and it’s “impossible to get someone on the phone”.

“I’m stuck in a loop,” he explained, unable to upload letters the registration process requires. “The queue for the Centrelink office near me extends out the doors and around the block from morning until closing.”

 

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