Australia’s peak retail body will raise casuals’ eligibility for the new jobkeeper payment with the government after unions, Labor and the Greens raised concerns that those with less than 12 months of service are excluded from the $1,500 fortnightly payment.
The Australian Retail Association’s executive director, Russell Zimmerman, told Guardian Australia that casuals’ eligibility was an “area of concern” and the government should consider exceptions for people with less than 12 months’ service but a likely “continuation of their role” after Covid-19 shutdowns.
The number of confirmed cases in Australia rose to 4,557 on Tuesday, up 312 since Monday, and states implemented tough new measures introducing penalties for gatherings of two or more people and travel for a non-essential purpose.
On Tuesday the federal government committed to spend at least $1.3bn to secure the viability of the private health sector and redeploy tens of thousands of doctors, nurses and midwives from private hospitals into the public sector to deal with increased demand due to the novel coronavirus.
The government has still not contacted Labor to propose a rescheduled sitting of parliament to legislate its $130bn third support package, which created the new jobkeeper payment for an estimated 6 million Australian workers to receive wage subsidies through their employer rather than seeking unemployment benefits.
The Australian Tax Office experienced a surge in demand for information when the wage subsidy was announced. A spokesperson said the ATO website registered 1.1m visits on Monday – double the traffic experienced on the previous Monday. The ATO also fielded 50,000 phone calls on Monday, about 50% more than the same time last year.
So far, more than 190,000 businesses have formally registered their interest in claiming the jobkeeper payment for their employees.
The ACTU, which started the push to adopt a UK-style wage subsidy in Australia, has said it will continue to lobby the government to ensure that casuals with less than 12 months’ service – estimated to be 1 million of 3.3 million casuals – do not miss out.
On Tuesday, Labor’s shadow industrial relations minister, Tony Burke, welcomed the creation of the jobkeeper payment, saying he was “not going to start picking the package apart”.
But Burke said casuals’ eligibility had been “raised with us by both workers and by businesses, I have to say, who rely on a workforce like that. That’s one of the issues that we’ll be looking at really carefully.”
Zimmerman said the package was “very good” and had been “well received generally”, but casual eligibility was “an area of concern”, although he could understand why the government had limited eligibility to those with 12 months’ service with the same employer.
But Zimmerman said the current limit “seems a bit difficult” for casuals who may have worked for one employer for nearly 12 months then changed jobs to get more hours.
“I could have worked for nine to 12 months, then I left Joe Bloggs and three months ago I went to work for Mary Smith. Now you’ve lost both those positions and aren’t eligible for jobkeeper – that’s the only area I can really see there’s a problem.
“I think if you can show the continuation of your role, you should get it. It’s something I will talk to the minister about.”
But the chief executive of the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia, Peter Strong, said the government “had to draw the line somewhere”.
“Monday’s announcement reflects a situation we’ve never been in before – there are both winners and losers but it created an enormous number of winners,” he told Guardian Australia.
“I suppose [casuals’ eligibility] is going to be considered, but I for one am reluctant [to expand it] because where do you stop?”
Strong said the exclusion of many temporary visa holders was “definitely a concern” and the other pressing question for business was: “If workers are getting paid $750 a week, can their employer ask them to do work?”
“The workplace relations system hasn’t caught up with the last century, let alone that question.”
On Monday Scott Morrison said the benefit of the jobkeeper payment was that it assisted businesses that were “still functioning, when their employees are actually still at work”.
“Our scheme is designed to actually keep people not just in pay but in actual work, wherever that’s possible,” the prime minister said.
The Greens leader, Adam Bandt, said the government’s exclusion of casuals with shorter engagements and the flat rate of jobseeker payments would “fail to keep Australians employed and still represents an inferior model” to an 80% wage subsidy.
There are also concerns the casuals’ eligibility threshold will have a gendered impact because women are over-represented in the retail and hospitality sectors, which have the most casuals with less than a year’s service.
The shadow employment and small business minister, Brendan O’Connor, said the threshold was “clearly more difficult for women often employed as casuals in sectors hit hard by the health crisis, and we want to ensure where we can that people don’t fall through the cracks”.
O’Connor has written to the employment minister, Michaelia Cash, querying whether businesses that have been in operation for under 12 months will be eligible.
To be eligible for the scheme, businesses will have to show they suffered a 30% decline in revenue “relative to a comparable period a year ago” – or 50% if the business turns over more than $1bn a year.
O’Connor wrote: “Some businesses have contacted us believing the publicly released details of the jobkeeper payment means they are ineligible as they may not be able to compare a current period with significant declines in revenue to a comparable period a year earlier.”
O’Connor urged Cash to give the issue “immediate consideration”, warning that for new businesses “a crisis such as this one is likely to wipe them out and in many cases they will never reopen”.
Zimmerman said retailers – even those turning over more than $1bn – were likely to be able to show revenue decline significant enough to qualify.