Telecommunications giant Telstra and resources company BHP announced plans to hire more staff through the crisis, as the Australian dollar traded below US60¢ and banks announced billions of dollars of relief for struggling small businesses and mortgage holders.
But many employers are expected to cut staff while travel and large gatherings are banned, with the retail, education, hospitality and tourism sectors expected to be hard hit. Booking services Flight Centre and Webjet have both halted trading in their shares as they seek to line up emergency funding from investors to sustain their operations.
State governments are also working on new laws to protect Australians who rent their homes, leading to “model rules” that will require landlords to be flexible in hardship cases.
A federal government source said the Coalition was looking at changes to the legal definition of “unemployed” to help small businesses and sole traders keep their doors open during the pandemic crisis but still access government benefits.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison cleared the stimulus plan with federal ministers late on Friday after holding a national cabinet meeting with state leaders to agree on the measures to protect residential and commercial tenants.
“There will be Australians over the next six months who, through no fault of their own, will find themselves with less work, with less income, and in the worst case, without a job,” Mr Morrison said.
“That’s going to happen to quite a number of people. And it’s our job to ensure that we do as much as we possibly can to cushion that blow.”
Australia’s unemployment rate fell to 5.1 per cent in February before the impact of the virus but Westpac economists warned this week it would rise to 7 per cent, while Goldman Sachs forecast 8.5 per cent. An increase to 8.5 per cent would mean 468,000 more Australians out of work, joining about 714,000 who already receive the Newstart allowance, which was renamed the JobSeeker Payment on Friday.
Mr Morrison said he was giving “close attention” to the fact many workers who lost work would not be familiar with Centrelink or the process they must follow to gain help.
“People who have never known themselves to be out of work will be confronted in some cases with that prospect,” he said.
A single person with no children receives a JobSeeker payment worth $565.70 each fortnight, with couples receiving $510.80 each. The government plans to only increase this amount for all recipients at a time of extraordinary pressure on household budgets, and make sure those who lose jobs can gain other allowances such as rent assistance.
The mutual obligation requirements for job seekers have also been relaxed, with a pause on all work-for-the-dole schemes other than those conducted online. The default number of jobs people will need to apply for in order to qualify for payments will be radically reduced from 20 to four per month because of the “softening” labour market.
Small business groups backed a call from the Australian Council of Social Service to increase the unemployment benefit by $95 a fortnight, while ACTU president Michele O’Neil said the current rate was “obscenely” low.
Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia chief executive Peter Strong said a higher rate was needed “without a doubt”, while the Australian Industry Group said wanted to see a relaxation of eligibility for the payment.
“As a community we should be ready to offer support in these tough times,” Ai Group chief executive Innes Willox said.
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With aged care workers under increased pressure to guard against the virus, Mr Morrison announced more than $446 million to support the sector, including $245 million for a “retention bonus” for staff in nursing homes and home care.
Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter named former Labor minister Greg Combet as a special workplace adviser in an attempt to overcome partisan disputes to deal with the virus. Mr Combet said it was “vital that we all work together in the best interest of the country” to make sure there was flexibility to stop job losses and business closures.
In a separate issue in the national cabinet on Friday, state leaders agreed with Mr Morrison to pass laws if needed to protect tenants who struggle with payments due to the virus. The protections could also apply to commercial tenants such as employers who lose business. The West Australian government will develop the “model rules” to define how relief can be provided for tenants in hardship conditions.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Judith Ireland is a political reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House