‘So relieved’: belated Covid support welcomed by welfare recipients in Sydney lockdown

For weeks, the bills have been piling up. Some have been considering life-changing decisions like moving back into their parents’ home, as others try to hide their despair from their children.

Many have been at a loss for what to do next.

Facing mounting pressure to respond to the growing financial hardships across greater Sydney, Scott Morrison this week responded by boosting income support for those impacted by stay-at-home orders.

The prime minister says the government will increase the Covid disaster payment to either $450 or $750 a week, depending on how many hours’ work a person has lost.

And after weeks of resistance, the government will also plug a gap that blocked people already receiving some welfare payments from being compensated for their lost employment income.

From Monday those who have lost more than eight hours a week of work will receive a $200-a-week top-up to their welfare payments.

The change reflects the fact that about a quarter of people on welfare payments such as jobseeker or youth allowance are also in work – equivalent to about 200,000 people in New South Wales.

The $200 a week will allow Yvonne Culhane to at least afford to pay her rent and bills, though things will still be tight.

“I’ve been literally living off savings that are nearly gone now,” says Culhane, 37, who has been barred from extra support until now.

“I don’t expect them to match my average working week, but they should be a bit more realistic about the fact Sydney has the highest level of living expenses,” she adds.

Culhane shares her eastern suburbs home with Laura McDonald, 34. Both have lost work and been blocked from extra support because they also received jobseeker payments.

Culhane was stood down from her casual job as a dermal therapist on 23 June, just before the citywide lockdown began.

Five weeks of reduced income has already left its mark. Her jobseeker payments plus rent assistance add up to about $365 a week, a fraction of what she earned from her work. Her rent is $300 a week.

Culhane had been considering moving back to her native Ireland and she reveals she’d also been saving money by eating less. She says she’s “lucky” she is “not someone that has a massive appetite”.

The federal government had been facing calls from welfare groups, business and unions to ramp up economic support, including for people on welfare who were locked out of the disaster payments.

With NSW’s Covid cases heading in the wrong direction, the state treasurer, Dominic Perrottet, stepped up his lobbying efforts this week, writing in the Daily Telegraph that many of those who were being excluded from support were “young people who can’t yet get the vaccine, can’t work, can’t get on with their studies”.

He warned they were now being “told the income they have lost won’t be topped up like everyone else’s. This is truly the generation at risk of becoming the new forgotten people.”

“You feel just a bit lost about everything,” says student Valentina Garcia, 22, who has been stood down from her bartending job in Newtown. “You can’t budget. You can’t really do much but just sit there and wait each morning at 11am to see if they say something that’s going to help you.”

Joshua Maxwell, 28, works at a community theatre that has been shuttered by the lockdown. He still lives at home, and receives jobseeker to supplement his income, so he believes he will be able to make ends meet.

But Maxwell, who lives with a severe heart condition that reduces his life expectancy, has his own worries. His exclusion from support reflects Perrottet’s broader concerns.

The lost income – and the federal government’s reluctance to support him – was just another blow in a horror 18 months.

“I’m not able to make an income right now, I’m not only not able to do the work that I love doing,” Maxwell says. “I also know that 18 months of my life has been completely affected. And that’s the precious time I really wanted to travel, see friends and do projects, tick off things on the list.”

Morrison’s backdown comes as charities report an increase in requests for help, a trend likely exacerbated by the exclusion of welfare recipients from extra support for the first five weeks of Sydney’s lockdown.

Foodbank, for example, now has a backlog of more than 10,000 requests for food relief across NSW.

Single mother of two Amelia Hammoud, 37, was rejected for the disaster payment last week and was told by Centrelink to seek help from a charity.

“They gave me like a website to go onto, the Salvation Army, and just [told me to] ask them for food vouchers,” Hammoud says. “I think I’ve got $2.40 in my bank account. I’ve been walking everywhere because I can’t afford to fill up petrol in my car.”

Hammoud points out that before lockdown she had been working 38 hours a week as a casual.

“I was … getting just under $1,000 a week,” she says. “I pay $550 for my rent. Obviously I can survive on, you know, what’s left. And now I’ve gone to $600 a fortnight and I still got to pay $550.”

New rental rules introduced by the state government mean Hammoud can’t be evicted from her home, but has still been worried that she is falling behind on the rent.

“I’m selling household appliances so I can pay like my son’s tutoring,” Hammoud says, adding that sometimes she will go for a walk to hide the stress from her kids.

“I don’t let them feel that we’re struggling,” she says. “I try and tell them that everything’s OK, everything’s normal. But I know they can see, I know they can tell.”

Before the new package was announced, Nina Harris, 29 was baffled by the Morrison government’s reluctance to offer extra support. “Don’t they know we’re working parents?” she asked. “And that we’ve lost a main source of income?”

Harris receives parenting payments and lives in western Sydney with her partner and their two-year-old daughter.

She’s been stood down from a creche connected to a gym and has lost $800 a week in income.

While income support is designed to scale up when a person’s work income declines, the system also takes into account Harris’s partner’s income and her payments taper down if he earns more than $562 a week.

“I’m only getting some minimal parenting payments, because my partner earns too much,” she says. “So I’m getting less than $30 a fortnight.”

She was “so relieved” to hear about the $200 top-up this week, because the family was already falling behind on bills.

During the lockdown her partner has been working 14-hour days, six days a week to afford bills including their $600-a-week rental payments, Harris says.

“I’m so burnt out by everything,” she says. “With my electricity bill, money gets taken out of each pay to put that towards the bill. That’s bounced back numerous times. Because I’ve got $30 [a fortnight].”

Welfare groups and the union movement also welcomed the top-up for those who lost work, but argued leaving remaining jobseekers on a base rate of $44 a day was still cruel.

Last week, Morrison began fielding more questions about the need to broaden support to include welfare recipients. In one particularly combative interview, he told Triple J’s Hack program the government wasn’t “replacing everybody’s income”, just those not already on social security payments.

But on Wednesday, as Berejiklian announced a four-week extension to the Sydney lockdown, and with no clear end in sight, his resistance had melted away.

“The whole point of this is that people are not able to earn that extra income they were earning,” the prime minister said. “These payments are there to support them and to ensure that there is some recognition of that.”

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