With extended lockdowns continuing across NSW, the ACT and Victoria, governments have announced a range of new support measures and re-introduced others to assist small and medium enterprises (SMEs) facing hardship.
From rent relief to monetary aid and assistance developing e-commerce, these measures are designed to support business owners in continuing to trade despite widespread restrictions and challenging conditions, which are set to continue until vaccination targets are met in the coming months.
Rent relief and mediation
As one of the largest business costs, rent relief and support has been a significant focus of governments throughout 2020 and into 2021.
The Victorian state government recently introduced new legislation to provide rent deferrals and protection against eviction to commercial tenants who have experienced a fall in turnover of more than 30 per cent, backdated to 28 July 2021, via the Commercial Tenancy Relief Scheme (CTRS).
For commercial tenants who had deferred rent under the first round of the CTRS, any outstanding repayments will be frozen until 15 January 2022 and added to the deferred amount from the second round of the CTRS.
Conditions and eligibility requirements for the scheme – including those for newly-established businesses – are available on the Victorian Small Business Commission (VSBC) website.
As in 2020, commercial tenants and landlords are encouraged to negotiate rent relief under and if they are unable to come to an agreement, apply for free mediation with the VSBC.
In NSW, the state government has reintroduced the National Cabinet’s Mandatory Code of Conduct for Commercial Leasing, which can be found here.
The Code of Conduct requires landlords to provide rent relief in proportion with their tenant’s decline in turnover; at least 50 per cent must be in the form of a waiver, and the balance a deferral.
Landlords are also prohibited from evicting or locking out a tenant for certain breaches of the lease unless they have first renegotiated rent and attempted mediation.
The Retail and Other Commercial Leases (COVID-19) Regulation 2021 has been extended until 13 January 2022; it requires landlords to renegotiate rent having regard to the Code of Conduct.
An overview of the NSW Small Business Commission’s commercial leasing support and activities can be found here.
Mediation and other assistance for retail and commercial tenants and landlords can be accessed through the NSW Small Business Commission, which has been granted additional funding and staff to meet demand.
In the ACT, the COVID-19 Local Business Commissioner position has been reinstated, overseeing business access to information and financial assistance where eligible.
The Commissioner can also resolve simple tenancy disputes and guide parties in conducting good-faith negotiations, as well as refer more complex matters to accredited mediation services.
Additionally, a new Commercial Leases Declaration by the ACT Government came into effect on 12 August, providing protections for SME tenants with a decline in turnover associated with the lockdown.
More information on the support available can be found online.
Major economic support packages targeted towards small businesses have also been introduced by both federal and state governments.
On 15 September, the ACT Government opened applications for its COVID-19 Business Support Grants, which provide local small businesses, operating in the ACT on or before 1 April 2021 and experiencing a minimum 30 per cent in revenue, with a one-off $20,000 grant for the lockdown period.
Eligibility requirements, further information, and application details are available online.
Additionally, from October, eligible small businesses will be able to apply to the ACT Government to receive credits for payroll tax, utility charges, rates and other selected fees and charges up to a maximum of $10,000 through the COVID-19 Small Business Hardship Scheme.
In Victoria, funding of up to $1.6 billion has been committed to the Business Costs Assistance Program Round Four, jointly funded by the State Government and Federal Government.
It is designed to support businesses who were recipients of the Business Costs Assistance Program Round Two or the July Extension.
Businesses will receive weekly automatic payments of $2,800–$8,400 depending on annual payroll expenses to cover ongoing costs such as wages, rent, utilities and insurance.
Applications for grants from the state’s Small Business COVID Hardship Fund – which provides SMEs with grants of $14,000–20,000, have closed, however further rounds of funding may be announced in the coming weeks; updates are available via the Victorian Small Business Commission’s newsletter.
Victorian SMEs may qualify for the JobTrainer apprentice supplement, and Energy payment support.
In NSW, the JobSaver employee retention scheme will provide a cashflow boost equivalent to 40 per cent of a business’ weekly payroll with a payment of $1,500–100,000 per week, provided staffing levels are maintained to what they were on 13 July 2021.
Eligible businesses are those with an annual turnover between $75,000–250 million which have experienced a revenue decline of 30 per cent or more, and applications close on 18 October 2021.
A new Microbusiness Grant of $1,500 per week has also been announced, available to small businesses and sole traders with annual turnover between $30,000–75,000 who have been impacted by the Greater Sydney COVID-19 restrictions.
Applications for this grant also close on 18 October 2021.
At the federal level, the SME Recovery Loan Scheme, administered through participating lenders, continues to operate.
The scheme provides access to 80 per cent-Government guaranteed loans up to $5 million to be used for a range of business purposes, including refinancing some types of pre-existing debt.
On 25 August 2021, Treasury relaxed eligibility requirements for the scheme; businesses no longer need to have received JobKeeper in the March 2021 quarter to apply and applications are open until 31 December 2021.
A range of payroll tax deferrals have also been announced for eligible businesses.
The Federal Government-funded Go Local First campaign – which was successfully run for a six-month period in 2020 – has returned, offering business groups free marketing materials and other collateral for SMEs in order to encourage residents to shop with local businesses.
Support includes advice on setting up effective local campaigns, customisable social media and newsletter materials, free merchandise, and stickers and posters. Details can be found online.
In Victoria, the Upskill My Business initiative has launched through Business Victoria to assist in adapting to the changing retail environment, with free webinars and courses covering topics including remote operations, e-commerce, and budgeting.
Meanwhile, the state’s Small Business Digital Adaptation Program – open until 5 December 2021 – provides $1,200 rebates to support e-commerce expansion, including website upgrades, digital marketing, managing jobs and projects through technology, accounting, and stock tracking.
SMEs are able to access free product trials and workshops provided by technology firms including Shopify, Squarespace, and Xero.
Business Victoria is also offering recovery and resilience mentoring, and the Partners in Wellbeing Helpline provides confidential, one-on-one support for small business owners and employees.
At a national level, the Federal Government has provided extra funding to BeyondBlue’s mental health support program NewAccess For Small Business Owners, which is free and available via phone or video call.