ANU students have been experiencing significant underemployment since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and this has continued well into September. Students working across many industries, including hospitality, administrative work, and retail are being affected by reduced work hours. This is in light of student welfare payments dropping on September 25th, with the Coronavirus Supplement dropping from $550 per fortnight to $250 per fortnight. The supplement is currently only in place until December 31st, 2020, so it is expected Centrelink payments will return to their pre-COVID-19 rates.

Woroni spoke to four students about how this situation is affecting them. 

Jason*, 22, a full-time fourth year student, has been working in event catering for the past year, however was not eligible for JobKeeper. He is receiving Youth Allowance payments, though this is much less than the $1500 per fortnight JobKeeper payment. He is currently only working a third of the hours he had worked prior to the pandemic. Jason is concerned about the potential end to the Coronavirus Supplement in January next year, and anticipates he would need to find another job, something he fears will be difficult during an economic recession.  

Alex*, 22, a part-time fifth year student, had been working as a casual in hospitality for seven months when the pandemic hit Canberra in March. Unfortunately, they missed out on JobKeeper too, though they were able to qualify for Centrelink’s JobSeeker payment, which has helped fill in the gap in income. Nevertheless, like Youth Allowance, it is a significantly smaller payment than JobKeeper. Up until the end of March, they had been working 30-40 hours a week. Since returning to work they initially only worked around 10 hours a week, but is now back up to 20 hours. Alex considered applying for other work but felt it would be pointless given the high level of competition. They found the instability in work to be taxing on their mental health.  

Geraldine*, 22, a full-time honours student, had been working as a casual administrative assistant working up to five days a week for six months until the lockdown began. Six months later and she is yet to receive more shifts, despite many COVID-19 restrictions lifting in the ACT. In July, Geraldine completed 20 hours of contracted work for an ANU lecturer, however she is still awaiting payment. She has applied for more than ten jobs but  been rejected by three, offered one job requiring unreasonable work hours, and other application outcomes remain pending. Geraldine’s Centrelink Youth Allowance claim has been approved, but she is yet to receive her first payment. Geraldine is due to graduate at the end of the semester and is pessimistic about job prospects, therefore considering further study. 

Julian*, 20, is a full-time third year student, who had been casually working 5-10 hours a week in the retail sector prior to the onset of the pandemic. Initially, his hours were cut, and then reduced to zero after the business was guaranteed JobKeeper payments. Julian was ineligible for JobKeeper as he had only been working at the store for five months. Due to a prioritisation of JobKeeper recipients, when the store reopened Julian was not given any shifts, and is now only rostered on for one shift every six weeks, while other casuals are given one shift a fortnight. He has been looking for paid summer internships but intends to retain his retail work in the hope that his hours will increase around the typically busier Christmas period.He fears that hours will drop again come January. Julian has been receiving Centrelink Youth Allowance payments for over a year, and is concerned about his financial situation past January as his other form of income, a college scholarship position, is not guaranteed for next year.

All four of these students have lost more than half of their income from work since the start of the pandemic, and this is just a small slice of the student population. With reductions to Centrelink payment looming, the impacts of underemployment will only become more pronounced. The government currently has no plans to extend the Coronavirus Supplement into 2021, and it appears that many students will be left in financial peril. 

*Names changed for privacy.

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