Full hit to unemployment unclear for at least a month

Workers are facing the worst unemployment crisis in 26 years but the true number of households facing the Centrelink queue will be unclear for at least another month.

Experts say official labour force data due out this week from the Australian Bureau of Statistics won't show the worst of the job losses from the coronavirus pandemic.

Applicants line up at Centrelink amid the COVID-19 shock.Credit:Getty Images

The ABS data to be released on Thursday surveyed people over the period from March 8-21 and asked about their employment status during the previous week.

Grattan Institute household finances program director Brendan Coates said this would miss "most of the increase" in unemployment as the survey was before the toughest social-distancing measures were introduced, causing many businesses to shut their doors.

Non-essential gatherings of more than 500 people were banned from March 16 and more stringent measures were introduced shortly after to help slow the spread of the virus.

"[The unemployment rate in this week's data] will go up but most of the impact won't be shown yet. During the first half of the month, there weren't queues outside Centrelink," Mr Coates said.

The best Australian data available for April will be publicly released in mid-May by the ABS. In the US, data about unemployment benefit claims is available on a weekly basis.

"The government may see these figures internally but [as economists] we're relying on secondary measures of the unemployment shock as we don't have official data because of an enormous lag," Mr Coates said.

The Department of Social Services has stopped providing monthly figures on people who are eligible for the Newstart Allowance, now called JobSeeker, or Youth Allowance payments. The last available monthly publication was for December.

A DSS spokeswoman said the department had begun a review of the payments data and how to report it in a "more contemporary" way following the introduction of JobSeeker payments on March 20, however, quarterly reports were available.

Treasury modelling released this week shows it believes the jobless rate, which edged down to 5.1 per cent in February, will reach 10 per cent in the June quarter. That would be the highest since April 1994, when Australia was still recovering from the 1990-91 recession.

SGS Economics & Planning partner Terry Rawnsley said the ABS labour force survey counted someone as unemployed when they were not working, actively looking for work and ready to start.

"If people are stood down … they might not actually register under those criteria," he said.

The government's $130 billion JobKeeper wage subsidy, offering $1500 a fortnight to 6 million workers through their employers for the next six months, also complicated the picture. Mr Rawnsley said the scheme would reduce lay-offs but there could be a future rise in joblessness when it ended if businesses were unable to hold on to staff.

Labor's assistant Treasury spokesman, Andrew Leigh, said the crisis was fast-moving and the government should do more to report real-time data.

A government spokeswoman said the ABS had introduced several new labour market data releases to provide greater insight into the impact of coronavirus on jobs, which would come out between the monthly surveys, including weekly payroll jobs and wages data.

"Publicly released payment data undergoes a thorough checking and quality assurance process which means that products can have longer lead times," she said.

In a statement about the new data, Australian Statistician David Gruen said the monthly statistics were the "most reliable and authoritative source of information on the Australian labour market" compiled in line with international standards.

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