The last 18 months have shown us the difficulty of developing one perfect, all-encompassing financial support package that works for all small business owners. What we need is a multi-layered approach that covers rent, wages, staff retention, mortgage payments, other loan repayments, and utilities.
Every small business person suffering financially from COVID-19 lockdowns should be eligible for some degree of support, irrespective of industry, business structure, number of employees, location, and business size. If someone slips through the cracks of one support measure, they should be picked up by another support measure.
Let’s look at some of the pros and cons of past and present support measures:
Last year we had JobKeeper, which had the advantage of keeping employees and employers connected through lockdowns. It didn’t discriminate based on industry, so indirectly impacted businesses and their staff could still benefit from the program.
But it wasn’t enough on its own — the money had to be paid directly to workers. Small business owners still needed cash for the growing burden of debt from rent, utilities, loan repayments, and unused stock. Many also struggled with the fact that JobKeeper was paid in arrears. Not all businesses or employees were eligible either. Owners of new businesses and businesses that had recently restructured struggled to access it because of the requirement to have lodged a BAS before March 2020. Some casual employees and visa workers weren’t eligible to receive the payments.
JobKeeper was immensely helpful, but let’s not forget its faults.
We also had Cashflow Boost, which was another big help in addition to JobKeeper. Again, owners of new businesses struggled to access it. The money had to go towards ATO debt before being used for anything else, so many small businesses were still left struggling to find cash for rent, utilities, and other business expenses.
JobKeeper and Cashflow Boost were accompanied by the Code of Conduct for Commercial Tenancies, state-government grants, payroll tax waivers and deferrals, as well as industry-specific programs like New South Wales’ ‘Dine and Discover.’
The private sector also provided much appreciated assistance.
Many banks offered loan repayment deferrals, merchant fee refunds, and bridging finance. It’s been great seeing this assistance repeated, but these don’t assist with the growing burden of debt.
We are now in July 2021 and too many small business people are slipping through the holes in the patchwork of newly created state and federal financial assistance packages.
The grants on offer this year are generally lower than in 2020, and in many cases just a drop in the ocean compared to the levels of debt, which have changed dramatically since the beginning of the pandemic. Many small businesses are in weaker positions than they were 18 months ago, having accumulated debt through deferring rent and loan repayments in 2020. Cashflow assistance is vital.
That’s if they’re eligible at all. The states are causing confusion, determining eligibility for support using different mechanisms and, in some cases, the eligibility changes from one lockdown to the next.
All industries and sectors are eligible for COVID-19 business support grants in NSW and South Australia, as well as the NSW and Federal Government’s jointly funded JobSaver payment. These use decline in turnover to determine eligibility.
In Victoria and Western Australia, only certain ANZSIC codes are eligible for financial assistance – codes which for some businesses are outdated and inappropriately named. Another way they fall through the cracks.
We learned in 2020 that just because a business can remain open doesn’t mean it doesn’t suffer financially during lockdowns. ‘Essential’ retailers like supermarkets, pharmacies, and petrol stations located in CBDs and high tourism destinations still experience significant drops in foot traffic.
B2B businesses like food suppliers and distributors, bookkeepers, and business brokers are also forgotten. They may be able to trade, but if their customers have to close, they will take a financial hit as well. Think of food distributors whose principle customers are restaurants and cafes, for example. Think of the whole supply chain.
Victoria, Western Australia (and it appears South Australia) don’t provide support for microbusinesses. All small businesses start off earning under 75k, the threshold at which you must register for GST; simply because they don’t earn over 75k in a year doesn’t mean they aren’t a “genuine operation”. Sole traders are eligible for the federal COVID-19 Disaster Payment if they can’t run their business from home, but partnerships and trusts – some of which are also microbusinesses not picked up in the state government grants – are not.
And again, just because someone can run their business from home does not mean they are not financially impacted by lockdowns.
Thankfully NSW is offering microbusiness support grants, though people will have to wait until 26 July – a full week after applications for the general business grants opened – to apply.
Even the NSW and SA COVID-19 business support grants won’t reach everyone in need, nor will JobSaver. Those businesses that don’t quite meet the turnover decline cut-off are ineligible. What happens to those whose turnover decline comes out at 25%, 28%, 29%?
Too many small business people are slipping through the cracks, the holes, the gaps – whichever metaphor you prefer. And we haven’t even touched on the support for individuals here.
Our main message is this: We don’t want anyone to look at the support on offer and see that there isn’t anything available for them. What an awful feeling that must be.
An exploration of the impact of last year's lockdowns and support measures on small businesses in a variety of sectors can be found in COSBOA's Small Business Perspective report.