A new survey from the ABS shows the extreme effect of coronavirus social-distancing measures on employment, with well over a million workers losing their incomes in the space of a month.

April 20, 2020 16:32:53
Around 8 per cent of adult Australians, or more than 1.6 million people, appear to have lost their incomes in the first week of the total COVID-19 lockdown, according to early official estimates.
Key points:

  • The survey is based on the first week of the current tough coronavirus restrictions
  • Official unemployment figures released last week which showed little change were from before strict social-distancing measures came into force
  • The new survey shows an estimated 12.5 per cent of Australians in work in early March no longer were by the first week in April

While last week’s official jobs numbers showed little increase in unemployment, the survey that they were based on was taken in mid-March, before hundreds of thousands of people were forced out of work by the closure of dine-in eating, pubs, clubs and tight restrictions on people leaving home.
These latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) are based on a sample of 1,059 households interviewed in the first week after the current tough restrictions on movement, gatherings and selected services were introduced around the nation.
While the survey is vastly smaller, and therefore less statistically accurate than the monthly labour force data, it shows a dramatic effect from the lockdown.
In the first week of April, just 56 per cent of respondents were working paid hours, versus 64 per cent in early March before the current restrictions entered force.
That means more than 1.6 million people who were in paid work in early March no longer were by the first week in April.
That is on top of the 5.2 per cent of people looking for work who were already unemployed in mid-March.
However, there were signs that many employers were trying to hang onto staff, or promised them continued work when the restrictions eased, with a smaller 3-percentage-point fall in those saying they “have a job” from 66 to 63 per cent.
Although that in itself implies nearly 600,000 people were added to the ranks of the unemployed, close to doubling the unemployment rate in just one month.
The biggest change was in the proportion of people who said they were still employed but not currently working paid hours, up 5 percentage points to 8 per cent of Australians.
This may indicate that many workers were stood down or took leave in the initial stages of the shutdown. It may also reflect many casual workers being told there were no shifts available, rather than being sacked outright.
But while hundreds of thousands of Australians lost paid work in the space of just one month, many of those who still had a job found they were working longer hours.
The ABS said that 12 per cent of people still in a job worked longer hours than usual in the first week of April due to COVID-19, although twice that number worked fewer hours due to the pandemic.
Older Australians not much more concerned about COVID-19
Aside from the dramatic effect on Australians’ working lives, the ABS survey also asked how COVID-19 was affecting our personal lives and hygiene habits.
An overwhelming majority of Australians were taking action to minimise their risk of catching and transmitting COVID-19 even those who were not concerned about their personal safety.
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Just over two-thirds of Australians were concerned about their personal health because of COVID-19, with women much more worried (73 per cent) than men (62 per cent).
Interestingly, given that susceptibility to the disease and death rates from COVID-19 escalate rapidly within older age groups, the ABS found only minimal extra concern amongst those aged over 65 (71 per cent) compared to those aged 18-64 (67 per cent).
However, the survey showed that even most of those relatively unconcerned about their own health were taking measures to combat the spread of the virus.
The most common social changes were keeping a greater distance from others (98 per cent), avoiding public spaces and public events (88 per cent) and cancelling personal gatherings (87 per cent) although these actions were hardly surprising given that many activities in these categories had become illegal and subject to heavy fines.
Almost nine-in-10 Australians reported washing their hands or using sanitiser more than usual in the first week of April, while around half said they touched their face less than before.
However, only a third of older Australians (over 65) reported touching their face less, versus more than half of working-age Australians although this may reflect a higher rate of self-isolation amongst the elderly, at around three-quarters versus less than two-thirds of younger people.
With borders closing and Easter trips away from home being strongly discouraged by governments, it is perhaps not surprising that the ABS found that more than half of those surveyed had changed travel plans for either work or leisure due to COVID-19 during March.
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Contact Michael Janda