With Australia's official COVID-19 infection numbers topping 100,000 a day, the federal government has slashed its last remaining pandemic support payment.
The decision is ill-timed, irresponsible and heartless. It is stripping away support for those most affected by the pandemic at the time they need it most. It will place those in low paid and precarious work in further financial stress as they lose income to isolate when infected or in close contact with someone else with COVID-19.
The Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment was introduced in August 2020 in response to concerns casual workers and others without sick or pandemic leave entitlements could not take time off work when infected or in contact with someone with COVID-19.
The leave payment was initially available to those not qualifying for JobKeeper - or, after JobKeeper ended in March 2021, the "disaster payment" introduced in response to the Sydney lockdown in July 2021. Since that payment ended the Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment is the only individual financial support the federal government provides.
Available to people who had contracted COVID, were a close contact or needed to care for someone who had COVID, until this week it paid A$750 a week for two weeks. You could claim the payment regardless of the number of hours of paid work you lost.
On January 18 the rules tightened - a move announced via a press release on January 8 (a Saturday).
Now it only pays $750 if you lose 20 hours or more of paid work a week. If you lose 8-19 hours you get just $450 a week. If you lose less than eight hours you get nothing.
Getting the payment has also been made more difficult by imposing a 14-day time limit to apply, from the start of the isolation period. To qualify, you must show evidence of a positive PCR or rapid antigen test. Considering the difficulty of obtaining RATs, and delays in PCR test results of a week or more, this is a unreasonable and unnecessary constraint.
Flawed eligibility rules
A major flaw in the eligibility rules for the leave payment it is not available to people receiving social security payments. This excludes all JobSeeker recipients, despite about one in four being in some form of paid work - generally low-paid casual jobs.
The leave payment has been a vital part of the economic supports to help people stay safe and protect their loved ones and the community.
The peak body for the community services sector, the Australian Council of Social Service, has condemned this decision. It says cutting the payment will leave people without enough to cover basic costs, let alone the extra costs of isolation such as delivery fees, rapid tests (if you can get them) and personal protective equipment.
Worst time possible
There could scarcely be a worse time to cut this payment, with Australia now in the worst stage of the pandemic.
Between August 5 2020 and July 8 2021 the Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment provided almost 15,000 grants to support those in need. During this period the peak COVID case rate was just over 500 day, in August 2020. Consider, therefore, the likely need now we're at more than 100,000 a day.
With no other form of federal income support available you may apply for an unemployment or sickness payment like JobSeeker. But Services Australia advises this will be paid about two weeks after a claim is granted. That is of little help to cover rent while you're isolating with COVID. JobSeeker is also a maximum of $315 a week - inadequate to cover basic costs.
This cut will affect many of the same people lauded as the heroes of pandemic - essential workers employed casually in health and aged care, supermarkets, hospitality venues and warehouses. It will also hurt temporary visa holders, who are entitled to the leave payment and do not qualify for any other federal income support.
Last week ACOSS called for the establishment of a civil society COVID Rapid Response Group to work alongside National Cabinet. We need the interests of people most at risk in the room at the highest levels when decisions like the future of the Pandemic Leave Disaster Payment are made.
Cutting this payment now is effectively telling low-paid workers at the worst stage of the pandemic in Australia that they're on their own.
- Cassandra Goldie: Adjunct Professor and UNSW Law Advisory Council Member, UNSW