Ben Northey’s slick patent leather shoes glint in the dewy grass. Donning a full white tie tuxedo and tails with a baton in hand, the principal conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra looks an impressive figure – but very out of place in the backyard surrounded by children’s bikes, footballs and two lively guinea pigs.
This could be as close to his old life as Ben will get for a long time.
Across Victoria, thousands of people’s working lives have slowly petered out or shuddered to a halt altogether because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In Glen Huntly, a migrant chef on a temporary working visa is skipping meals to save money while wondering if government assistance will ever arrive. In Altona an operatic soprano used to performing to thousands is instead singing a lament to her trusty golden retriever. And between cleaning and maintenance, a gym owner in North Melbourne counting down the days until his clients walk through the door again.
This week the staggering impact of COVID-19 in Victoria was revealed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. In the month to April 18, Victoria lost 8.6 per cent of its jobs, more per capita than any other state and territory.
And for so many of us, our work is more than a pay cheque: it’s a routine, a social network, a sense of purpose, and in some cases our very sense of self.
Benjamin Northey, 49
Principal Conductor, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Just putting on his suit for a photograph with The Age, has given 49-year-old Ben butterflies in his stomach.
“It brought back some of the feelings of standing side of stage. The orchestra tunes and I’m standing there waiting – and just the adrenaline coursing through your body at that point”.
The state government has signalled that gatherings of large crowds will be one of the last things to return during the COVID-19 crisis, relegating performers like Ben – a sole trader and contracted artist on government welfare for the first time in his life – to a state of purgatory.
“Our art form and, and I guess most art forms, they’re more than a job, they’re a calling. And this is where we get our richness in our lives – from making music,” he says.
Ben is also the Chief Conductor of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and says the closest thing he’s seen to the fallout from this pandemic is the 2011 earthquake that tore apart New Zealand’s south island city.
“In many ways, it was somehow, at least for the short term, worse than this situation in the sense that the buildings were destroyed but also things like water, electricity, they were also gone.
“I’ve seen that community and that orchestra work their way through that situation. And that’s given me great hope that we will also be able to work our way through this situation as well.
“The other thing is, we’re going to need music and art at the end of this desperately, and that’s also a reason to be optimistic.”
Kiem-Ai Nguyen, 34
Operations Manager, Marrakech Bar
“I’ve honestly been more worried about my friends’ mental health than my financials,” says 34-year-old Kiem-Ai, who until March 21 worked at a Moroccan-themed cocktail bar in the CBD.
Kiem-Ai had been working 60 hours a week between her managerial bar job, and another cash-in-hand bartending gig, but in one week she lost them both.
“I lived off tips. Now I’ve had to transfer my mortgage into my mum’s name because I can’t afford the repayments,” she says.
Her saved up cash payments were a lifeline for her for the month she needed to wait for JobSeeker payments to come through.
“A lot of people are not as lucky as me – I had savings,” she says. She’s now volunteering to deliver food to those in the hospitality industry struggling to get by.
Between playing video games and watching movies, Kiem-Ai is experimenting with cocktails and creating new lists for when she is able to go back to her work – something she says is deeply entwined in her identity.
“Our job is not to just serve drinks. We’re an outlet for people who want to talk and shoot the shit,” she says.
“My whole ethos is to make someone laugh or smile every day, its a wasted day otherwise. And I literally get paid to do that.”
Steve Stenbord, 56
Owner, North Melbourne Boxing Gym
From the outside, Steve Stenborg’s boxing gym in North Melbourne might not look like much – an old warehouse building tucked between the Bolte Bridge, a train line and Flemington Road.
But before March 23, this echoey gym was a mental and physical refuge for the roughly 200 hospital staff, office workers, footballers, boxers and at-risk youth who used to sweat it out here each day.
It’s also Steve’s second home where, before the pandemic, he would switch the lights on at 6.30am and flick them off at 9pm most nights.
“Being here for 13 years and working many, many hours to all of a sudden find yourself without employment – yeah, I was quite shell shocked.”
With a generous rent freeze from his landlord and the government wage subsidy tiding Steve and some of his staff over, the boxing trainer says his own financial position isn’t the top of his worries. It’s the charities and fundraisers the gym sponsors, including an annual drive for children’s cancer, that are on his mind.
“As a result of us closing, we’re not able to hold fundraisers. So the flow-on effect is broader than just not having an income.”
But a fighter by nature, Steve’s rearing to go once restrictions start to ease.
“I’m just waiting. I know that it’s coming. I know that clock is going to go off at 5.15am [on the day gyms are allowed to open again],” he says.
“I’m going to be the first one down there. And I just can’t wait to see people walk in the door.”
Estelle Lucas, 28
“I never thought I’d ‘miss’ a client because clients come and go and you can’t get too attached, but it’s different when it’s not that we’ve grown apart but we are hindered from a virus,” says full-time escort Estelle Lucas.
With no in-person bookings allowed, and fines for sex workers found breaching social distancing laws of up to $20,000 – Estelle, like many others in the sex industry, have seen their incomes evaporate overnight.
Estelle has qualified for JobSeeker and has created a Twitter group for sex workers to help each other apply for government subsidies.
Like many other industries, Estelle says her industry has quickly adapted with many workers now offering online content or experiences. But she worries about the sustainability of that.
“My clients offer me more than just money and a good time; I enjoy hearing from them, asking for their advice and creating adventures,” she says.
“Every client is different and has different needs, and working in a sexual setting, there’s a huge emphasis on building a connection. Connections need to be maintained or they can fizzle out.
“I’m scared that once this is over, I’ll lose the connections I’ve worked so hard to sustain and I’ll have to start over with a new client base.”
Raghav Srivastava, 23
Commis Chef, Pullman Hotel
“I’ve just gone to one or two meals a day,” says 23-year-old Indian national Raghav Srivastava.
With bills for car insurance, registration and health insurance still coming in, Raghav says he has no more savings left to support himself.
Raghav is one of Australia’s forgotten workers. Although he has studied, worked and paid taxes in Australia for five years, the coronavirus pandemic has left him without a job and without any government assistance at all.
He’s dismayed by the lack of any government support for foreign workers on temporary visas and he says the pandemic has affected his family back in Delhi as much as him.
“India is under proper lockdown, so they can’t leave their houses. And both my parents are garment workers. So they get a little bit of [money] … to manage their house, and they can’t afford me living overseas.”
Raghav says he is planning to get an ABN to try to pick up work as a food delivery driver, but worries there’s little chance of getting any in a saturated market.
“If I don’t get any support, I will be going back to my country,” he says.
“Here in Australia, I’ve made contacts, I’ve studied here, but the cookery qualification for a chef doesn’t work the same way back in India. So I need to study again on those grounds and get into the job from the bottom level. So I have to start a whole new life again if I go back home”.
Bart Willoughby, 60
Musician, band member ‘No Fixed Address’
“After we [are] locked down then we know what it’s like to be locked up,” says 60-year-old Bart Willoughby, who – as one of the stolen generations – spent years being moved around South Australia as a ward of the state.
He says those hard years conditioned him to deal with the current lockdown measures and isolation.
“I’m used to it because I was locked up when I was a kid being taken away – it was sort of like lockdown. But this is different, this is people are dying which is very sad.”
Bart has applied for government assistance after losing gig bookings when music festivals, including the Melbourne Festival and NAIDOC week, were cancelled.
The advent of live online concerts has afforded him some income, but he says streaming music alone is no substitute for the real thing.
“I’m getting old and I can’t wait to get back into performing again,” he says, strumming an electric blue acoustic guitar on his back patio.
“I won’t be doing 100 miles per hour but I’ll be doing 99 miles per hour”.
His advice to those struggling without work and isolated?
“Focus on how beautiful you are and how lucky you are, and you’ll get through this together. Don’t bring chaos to the lockdown. Just bring in love and you watch that love get stronger.”
Natasha Pawlak, 44
Cabin Manager, Virgin Airlines
When Natasha Pawlak puts on her Virgin uniform, she becomes a different person.
“It’s hard to describe,” the aviation worker of two decades says. “There’s a sense of achievement. I feel proud to wear the Virgin uniform, and it becomes part of your identity as well.”
After Virgin Airlines went into voluntary administration last month, Natasha and about 8000 of her colleagues were stood down – one of the most significant industry upheavals in Australian aviation history.
Natasha is now receiving JobKeeper payments, while her husband works extra shifts as a freight truck driver delivering fruit, veg and fuel around the country. While they are grateful for the extra work the pandemic has given her husband, it means Natasha, who used to interact with up to 800 people a day, is spending a lot of the time alone.
“Like a lot of people, I have good days and bad days. Some days I don’t get out of my pyjamas and other days I decide to be a bit more proactive. But it’s really hard in this climate to be productive.”
When asked what she’s missing most, Natasha doesn’t even pause for thought.
“The social interaction, socialisation on overnight [shifts], with passengers on board, the crew.
“That’s what I miss the most.”
Brett and Barabara Audas
Owners, Melbourne Seaplanes
The coronavirus pandemic has brought about one of the quietest periods in the life of The Spirit of Williamstown, a six-cylinder Cessna 185 seaplane.
“She’s been a seaplane twice, I think she’s been a crop duster and parachuting aircraft,” says owner and pilot Brett Audus.
These days she’s locked up behind fences at the desolate Williamstown marina.
“March 20 was our last flight,” says Barbara – who runs the front-of-house operations for Melbourne Seaplanes. “It’s come to a complete standstill.”
The couple bought the only seaplane business in Melbourne nearly four years ago, after Brett spent years as a commercial pilot flying A380s with Emirates.
“I still fly currently with Fiji Airways out in the Pacific, but we’ve been stood down as well. So basically, I don’t have a job at the moment,” he says.
A $10,000 state government grant, and the JobKeeper subsidy will hopefully tide the business over until recreational flights are able to take off again.
“It’s the first time I’ve been unemployed in my life, so it’s very interesting put it that way,” says Brett. “We’re probably a little lucky that we have a little bit of disposable income but of course it can’t go on forever.”
Barbara and Brett are holding out hope that with on-going restrictions still on international travel, people will opt for local excursions instead.
“In which case, they’ll be more than welcome to come see us,” he smiles.
The last time operatic soprano Antoinette Halloran performed was with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in front of 6000 people at Myer Music Bowl over two nights in February.
“It’s very odd that I went from performing to 12,000 people in two days to performing for nobody,” she says, wearing one of her coral-coloured performance gowns in her backyard.
“Comparing what I earned this time last year to what I earn this time now, it’s zero, because I was a pretty much a solid performer,” she says.
“Thank god, I have some wonderful [online] students. So I’ve got a little bit of income dribbling in to buy food and cover the mortgage.”
For performers and artists like Antoinette, the need to maintain disciplined practice while in lockdown is a battle.
“My whole job is revolving around the audience and pleasing an audience and giving joy to an audience,” she says.
“I really miss performing, but my husband recognises that in me. So he drags me into the front room and we’ve recorded three videos that we’ve put out on the internet,” she laughs, glassy-eyed.
“So it’s given me a little bit of a reminder: ‘Oh, there I am, that’s who I am’.”