Coronavirus: Last day for Kiwi businesses to apply for wage subsidy

Thursday marks the final day New Zealand businesses can apply for a wage subsidy, financial assistance BusinessNZ says has been vital in supporting Kiwi families.

Back in March, prior to the nationwide lockdown, the Government announced a wage subsidy programme for all businesses affected by COVID-19 that could show a 30 percent decline in revenue. It paid $585.80 per week for full time staff and $350 for part time staff.

Between then and June - after being slightly tweaked to remove a $150,000 cap per business - the subsidy supported 396,751 businesses or 1.65 million jobs, costing $10.94 billion. An extension for the most severely impacted businesses was then made available for an additional eight weeks, supporting hundreds of thousands of employees.

While many businesses bounced back when New Zealand moved to alert level 1, the latest COVID-19 outbreak in Auckland and the subsequent lockdown forced those in the region to stop trading.

In response, the Government introduced the COVID-19 resurgence wage subsidy for a two week period. As of August 26, it had supported 46,920 businesses or 156,741 jobs.

Any business who believes they may still require the support can apply before 11:59pm on Thursday. 

"For businesses who have just been through alert level 3, they will need to get their application in by [Thursday night] and that may help them as they figure out what the shape of their demand looks like after lockdown and then alert level 3, as they kinda get back to some sort of normality," BusinessNZ chief executive Kirk Hope told Newshub.

He said the wage subsidy - one part of the Government's COVID-19 response alongside the likes of small business cashflow loans and changes to some tax thresholds - had been critical for businesses.

"The primary feedback businesses have given us about the subsidy is that it was very easy to get, that it provided them with support when they really definitely needed it and it supported a lot of families who worked in their businesses. 

"It is a very important part of the set of support packages that the Government has delivered to not just businesses, but the community."

However, after the Auckland lockdown, some businesses in especially affected sectors, such as hospitality, are crying out for more help and are projecting large job losses. Recent ideas put forward include the Restaurant Association's 'Eat out to Help Out' scheme of subsidising meals for Kiwis on specific days. But that is yet to gain support.

"For businesses that are in really hard-hit industries that have done two lockdowns, it is going to be really challenging. They may need some broader, sector-specific support and I know the industry organisations that represent them have been working with the Government to talk to them about what they might need by way of grants or additional borrowing," Hope told Newshub.

"Of course, they have had not just one national lockdown, but then the secondary impact of alert level 3 again for a couple of weeks in Auckland."

After the Auckland lockdown was extended for four days beyond its first two weeks, there were calls, including from the Opposition, for the wage subsidy to also be extended. But that was rejected by the Government, which pointed to the businesses having had 22 weeks of support. Those who hadn't applied for the initial extension could also still do so at the time.

Hope said there might be other ways the Government can assist.

"The question is how long those subsidies can run and whether there is another tool or another set of tools that the Government may be able to use to help support businesses. Some businesses were able to open under alert level 3, other businesses had to shut. It was like a lockdown for them."

In the meantime, Hope encourages Kiwis to get out when they can and shop locally. 

On August 21, through all three wage subsidies, 241,077 jobs were still being supported. A total of $13.4 billion has been paid out.

The number of people on Jobseeker benefits has risen from about 145,000 in mid-March to 195,500, with an additional 24,000 people receiving the Government's COVID-19 Income Relief Payment. The number of people receiving one of those was up 2717 between August 14 and 21.

Retail NZ said on Wednesday that the recent lockdown had significantly impacted business confidence, with 13 percent of retailers not confident their business would survive and a further 23 percent on a knife-edge. It said that suggests 10,000 businesses could be at risk.