Amanda Ward is potting around behind a glass cabinet full of the most intriguing hunters of slow-cooked meat, ready to be cut and wrapped in fresh crusty bread.
It’s just before noon, and you might expect an activity move ahead of lunch for a café at the foot of a 22-storey tower in downtown Melbourne. But things are quiet, and Ward and his staff know it.
“So we’re under 121, which is all government offices,” Ward tells the Defendant from a table outside the Meat House on Exhibition Street. “And right now there is no one.”
Things have picked up since last year, when the Flesh House first emerged from a lockout, and Ward found herself selling around 50 coffins a day, compared to more than 650 they would get through before the disease.
But just as things were getting better, if only a little, now there is a new hurdle. The employee wage subsidy that has raised nearly a million Australian businesses over the past 12 months is coming to an end.
The $ 90bn program has subsidized wages for 3.6 million workers, paid directly to businesses that may show a decline in turnover. Controversially, some of these businesses have gone on to turn a profit.
The scheme has gone down since its introduction, but from March 28 it will disappear completely.
Ward gets a job warden, her current only salary, with the cafe taking over to her two other employees.
“If we don’t increase our take-up, I may have to let them go,” she says.
In parliament this week, treasurer Josh Frydenberg called for the time to end the jobkeeper program. He always intended it to be “temporary”, he said. And 2.7 million people had now “graduated from jobkeeper”.
Frydenberg said there were economic risks to continuing the program.
“It hinders the efficient allocation of staff to other positions, and can promote some unsustainable businesses,” he told parliament, citing advice from the Treasury.
Frydenberg has conversely stated at the end of the scheme – that businesses will close and people will lose their jobs – in a fairly coded language.
He said the coming weeks could be “bumpy”. When asked if the government had modeled the number of jobs going, he noted that the Reserve Bank still expects the unemployment rate to fall over the year.
It found support on Thursday when the unemployment rate fell to 5.8%, news that surprised most economists and pushed the government forward.
Like the travel industry, which has been identified for extra support after a jobkeeper, the problems facing Melbourne’s CBD cafes like Ward’s are out of its control.
Ward is confident that the offices that call 121 Exhibition Street home – including three government departments and Australian Post – are now close to the 75% capacity now allowed under the limitations of Victoria Covid.
“This week, trade has passed, and they have come in to empty their desks,” Ward says. “But they do not yet have a date when they will return to work. Because they come back to shared desks.
“Hopefully next week we will be busy. But that has been completely since January. “
Across the road from the Meat House, Jackie and Darren Silverman’s hole-in-the-wall coffee shop, Black Velvet Espresso, is also feeling the pinch.
The Silvermans are lucky because their business is wholesale. It also means that they have a clear awareness that cafes like theirs, in Melbourne CBD, are in their own right.
“The suburban cafes we sell a lot have gone big guns, a lot of them are busier than ever, which is just fantastic,” said Jackie Silverman.
“But the streets of CBD are not yet close to pre-Covid. In fact, we are very lucky if we were up to 40 to 50%. “
The Silvermans have lost their staff to the busiest suburban cafes so the couple are now back behind the coffee machine for the first time in years. They also get an employee.
“We do a lot of modeling with our figures,” Jackie says. “It remains to be seen how we are doing. ”
In December, the latest data released by the ATO showed that 1.5 million people were still in receipt of a jobkeeper subsidy.
It is not known how many of these people will lose their jobs when the package expires, but one estimate, from labor market economist Professor Jeff Borland, puts the figure at between 125,000 to 250,000 people.
Another, from the Commonwealth Bank, said up to 110,000 people could be laid off. A gloomy view from Small Business Australia suggested that 488,000 people would lose their jobs, and that nearly 100,000 businesses would be closed permanently.
Just looking at the hospitality industry, the Restaurant and Catering Association has estimated that around 10% of the 48,000 restaurants, cafes and waiters in the pre-pandemic industry will close, while and a janitor was coming to an end and a landlord’s defenses were ending.
Will Murray, the owner of Cathedral Coffee, which is away in an art deco arcade near Melbourne’s Flinders Street station, says rent and salary are his biggest expenses.
Murray and one of his five employees have found work. “I haven’t achieved yet and I have to cough all the wages now,” he said. “You know, it’s kind of scary.
“I wouldn’t want to put any staff down, so it seems like it just means giving myself a lot more hours just to try and cover the costs. ”
Ward, Murray and Silverman all say their great hope now is that office capacity at Melbourne CBD will soon go up to 100%.
Even then, there are questions about what the cultural change brought about by the pandemic might mean for the city’s CBD coffee scene. “A lot of employees don’t plan to come back, or maybe once a week, once a fortnight, and that’s not going to keep the city’s businesses going,” Silverman says , furthering conversations she has had with customers.
While Murray’s café benefits from being close to Flinders Street station and the old fashioned stores in the Cathedral arcade, he says the businesses are hurting without the constant flow of cargo. -purchased once from 7.30am.
“From 7.30 to nine, it’s still very quiet,” says Murray. “From about nine onwards, you get people coming in, but I think the big thing we’re missing is office staff. ”
Silverman says many cafes “just hang on”. “They will make decisions at the beginning of April”.
“[It depends] on which the landlords can still help, for that is what we have left with a worker away. If rent goes back up to full rent with no foot traffic, we are in good shape. ”
Sitting in one of the outdoor tables, Ward thinks back before the pandemic.
“They would wait out the door, with the coffee machine outside,” she said. “It’s just sad. Very sad.
“If they don’t come back, I don’t know how we will survive… This is our livelihood, our investment. We accepted the build.
“We don’t want to lose it, you know. But is it worth it if you don’t make any money? ”