Unemployment rises slightly in March figures

The high number of people lining up at Centrelink offices across the country aren't included in the latest unemployment figures. Picture: Karleen Minney
The high number of people lining up at Centrelink offices across the country aren't included in the latest unemployment figures. Picture: Karleen Minney

The latest unemployment figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics give an insight into the state of the economy before shutdowns enforced to manage the spread of coronavirus caused long lines outside of Centrelink offices.

The unemployment rate rose just 0.1 per cent to 5.2 per cent in March, with the Bureau of Statistics finding the number of unemployed people increased by 3,500 people.

Underemployment increased by 0.1 per cent to 8.7 per cent.

The survey period for the March labour force data was March 1 to 14. The government announced the first restrictions on outdoor gatherings of more than 500 people on March 13, and further restrictions and shut downs were announced in the following weeks. The next set of unemployment figures to be released will include people surveyed between March 29 and April 11.

The Job Keeper wage subsidy program was announced on March 30 and free childcare for working parents on April 2, factors which will affect whether people continue to be employed.

People receiving the Job Keeper payment will be classes as employed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, but not everyone receiving the Job Seeker payment will be classed as unemployed, as people can still receive that payment if they have a job and meet a low income test.

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"Today's data shows some small early impact from COVID-19 on the Australian labour market in early March, but any impact from the major COVID-19 related actions will be evident in the April data," said chief economist at the Bureau Bruce Hockman.

"Given the expected unseasonal change in key labour market indicators in the current COVID-19 context, the ABS will increase the focus on seasonally adjusted over trend data estimates for April and subsequent months."

Treasury has already forecast an expected increase in the unemployment rate to 10 per cent.

According to the data, the number of hours worked increased by 8.7 per cent between February and March, but the monthly under-utilisation rate increased slightly to 13.9 per cent.

In the ACT the unemployment rate remained steady at 3 per cent, while in NSW, it increased from 4.6 per cent to 4.8 per cent, and in Victoria a slight decrease. South Australia has the highest unemployment rate in the country.

The Bureau of Statistics says it is monitoring both the effects of the summer's devastating bushfires and the coronavirus on employment, and the disruption to the economy will be seen in the number of hours worked.

Employment Minister Michaelia Cash acknowledged the latest figures don't show the impact of coronavirus, but said it showed the employment market was strong early in March.

"Despite these figures we know, and the Treasury figures show unemployment will spike in June at 10 per cent," she said.

More than 850,000 businesses had applied for the Job Keeper payment, Senator Cash said.

Labor's spokesman on employment Brendan O'Connor said the figures released on Thursday were "sobering".

"This is the calm before the unemployment storm," he said.

"The figures come well before the mass closures of businesses and they come well before the images circulated of thousands of Australians lining the unemployment queues."

Mr O'Connor said the unemployment figures showed the government needed to change the eligibility for the Job Keeper wage subsidy to include more casual workers, as more than a million workers look set to miss out.

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This story Unemployment rises slightly in March figures first appeared on The Canberra Times.