Small businesses anxiously await this week's decision on the future of JobKeeper

Facing at least another five weeks of stage three restrictions, small businesses are diversifying to stay afloat in the current climate, but fear they’ll be left without a safety net come September.

Every Monday night, in the kitchen of the Salama Tea House in Melbourne’s west, Hamed Allahyari hosts an online Persian cooking class.

Offering an insight into the unique flavours of Iran, his classes have been incredibly popular, booking out his first ten-week block.

The classes are helping to supplement the income of his once bustling café that has now been restricted to takeaway-only for the second time due to coronavirus restrictions.

“First lockdown in March, it wasn’t like this. The second, it was more serious. It’s very quiet, I really feel it, you know, even for takeaway, even for an online platform there are not many orders.”

Hamed Allahyari making baklava.
Source: SBS/Abby Dinham

Hamed opened the Salama Tea House in July last year as a social enterprise only employing refugees and newly arrived migrants. He arrived in Australia himself as an asylum seeker from Iran in 2012.

A trained chef, he says his lack of English and work experience in Australia prevented him from getting paid employment. He says working at the tea house gives other new arrivals a start in the Australian job market.

“They don’t have confidence to even go to a café to order a coffee because they can’t speak English, they’re scared to make a mistake. They don’t feel like they’re part of the community, they still feel like they are strangers. So I wanted to open this place to support them,” he said. 

Calls for JobKeeper to be extended

When Hamed's cafe was reduced to takeaway only in March, business revenue dropped by 90 per cent and he was forced to let his seven casual staff go.

He runs the business alone, seven days a week, and relies on the JobKeeper subsidy to pay his own wage, but with the scheme due to expire in September, he fears for the future without it.

The federal government is set to make an announcement on the future of JobKeeper on Tuesday, ahead of Thursday's July Economic and Fiscal Update.

But SBS News understands the JobKeeper payment will be extended beyond its 27 September deadline, after which it will continue at a reduced rate and face stricter eligibility criteria. 

This will include the wage subsidy adopting a two-tiered payment system to more closely reflect the incomes of employees who previously worked fewer hours.

Prime Minister Morrison on Monday said the "next phase" being considered by government was needed to continue to minimise the impact of COVID-19.
"It will be targeted, it will be temporary, it will be effective as the first round has been," he told reporters.

Small Business Ombudsman Kate Carnell says it is imperative cafes like the Salama Tea House survive the pandemic.

Hamed Allahyari does the books at Salama Tea House.
Source: SBS/Abby Dinham

“This is where job growth and innovation happens so it’s fundamental for Australia going forward, for Australian growth, to get the SME sector up and running and to have them confident enough to invest in their business and invest in their people,” she said. 

In response to the second lockdown, the Victorian government expanded its Business Support Fund, offering $5,000 grants to businesses through the renewed restrictions.

Nationally, the federal government announced a jointly-funded JobTrainer scheme to sponsor apprenticeship and training positions for school leavers and those reskilling in other trades.

Lunchtime options at the Salama Tea House.
Source: SBS/Abby Dinham

JobSeeker payments for those who’ve lost work during the pandemic have been increased temporarily, while JobKeeper provides businesses impacted by the pandemic with wage subsidies up to $1,500 a fortnight to keep employees on the books.

Around 3.5 million workers have benefited from JobKeeper. Ms Carnell says small businesses aren’t ready to go it alone.

“What we’ve got to do is have support packages in place until the economy is working properly, in other words, until there are no shutdowns until COVID is under control,” she said.

James Wood runs occupational safety company CNBSafe. He employs speakers who have first-hand experience of workplace accidents to deliver safety lectures to businesses.

James Wood has lost 90 per cent of business since the pandemic.
Source: SBS/Abby Dinham

James lost the use of his legs in a workplace accident over 20 years ago, and the majority of his employees also live with a disability.

When the pandemic first hit, all of CNBSafe’s bookings were cancelled, costing the company around $700,000.

He says when restrictions were lifted in Victoria, new bookings came in but then stage three was again reinstated.

“We were just starting to receive some phone calls from people wanting to get us out to their workplace once the travel restrictions were lifted, and then the second wave hit and we went right back to the start again with no bookings, no interest.”

James Wood with daughter Annie and wife Vanessa.
Source: SBS/Abby Dinham

The business has been diversifying, taking safety messages online, but James says the power of CNBSafe is the personal interaction with speakers who’ve experienced a workplace accident first hand.

His daughter Annie has also launched a series of online safety videos for kids, calling herself Safety Annie.

But James is hoping to get his speakers back to work as soon as possible as he says those living with a disability are disadvantaged in a competitive job market

“I know we have some great equality and inclusion these days, but the simple fact is that if an employer could choose between someone who is able-bodied or someone in my situation, who has to use a wheelchair, unfortunately, I think a lot of employers are going to choose the person that doesn’t get around like me.”

Residents in metropolitan Melbourne are subject to stay-at-home orders and can only leave home for essential work, study, exercise or care responsibilities. People are also advised to wear masks in public.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

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Published 20 July 2020 at 7:21am, updated 20 July 2020 at 6:00pm
By Abby Dinham