In March, the Government was forced to act quickly when it was faced with a growing health and economic crisis that is likely to be remembered as a historic event. The then Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, announced that all non-essential retail was to close along with cafes, bars and restaurants. Ireland had entered lockdown and with that significant step, the state had taken on the responsibility to pay the wages of hundreds of thousands of people.
In those early days of the pandemic, the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) was introduced to help the rapidly increasing numbers of people made unemployed by the closure of businesses. At this time, the payment was still covered by the substantial budget surplus from the previous year. As the crisis extended into the Summer, the government was forced to embark on a programme of record borrowing which raised the deficit to levels not seen since the depths of the recession in 2011.
There was consensus between the financially liberal minded and the economic conservatives. Indeed, the British conservative Government introduced the furlough scheme while governments around Europe introduced similar measures. Nonetheless the Lockdown led to an enormous rise in the levels of youth unemployment. By June, CSO figures suggested that 51% of people aged 15 to 24 were unemployed and that the overall unemployment rate, when all those who were in receipt of the PUP were taken into account, was 26.1%.
At first, the PUP was a flat rate of €350 given indiscriminately to all who were made unemployed as a result of the pandemic. As time has progressed so too has the discussion around the mounting costs of the PUP. The government came to the conclusion that it would scrap the flat rate and instead introduce a tiered system of payments linked to the wages people earned in their previous job.
According to the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI) their analysis of the figures provided by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection in October shows that “a third (32%) of young people under 25 are now on the lowest rate of PUP payment of €203 compared to a fifth (20%) of recipients over 25. Overall, almost 6 out of 10 (58%) young people under 25 are on the two lower rates of €203 and €250. In comparison, almost two-thirds of older workers are on the highest rate of €300.”
Third year students James O’Donnell and Eoin Macnally spoke to TN about receiving the PUP as a result of the government’s decision to put the country on “level 5” restrictions.
O’Donnell had worked in his previous job as a bartender for nine months before the first lockdown. He has been unable to work since March, “they had reopened but my job was primarily as a mixologist…because I was a student working part-time and since the restaurant was opening, closing and reopening again me and my boss decided it would be better for the other girl to take the hours”. This has been an all too common experience for student part-time workers employed in sectors that have been severely affected by the lockdown measures. Employers, especially those running small businesses, have been imploring the government for more clarity about when and how they can reopen fully.
When the payment was first introduced it was welcomed by many part-time student workers as it sufficiently covered their lost earnings, “although I was working part-time I was on a pretty good wage” O’Donnell says, “when they put it at €350 it was what I would earn in a week with pretty rubbish tips”. The PUP due in part to the haste with which it was introduced does not take into consideration income such as tips, “the Government had to choose a number it may have been more trouble than it was worth doing it on a case by case basis.”
As the NYCI research suggests, the move to reduce the payment has disproportionately affected students and young people, many of whom work part-time in sectors affected by lockdowns. O’Donnell explained the harsh realities of the move to the tiered payment system. He and his girlfriend were left in a perilous position when after the PUP was cut, “we were left with just €15 after paying the rent, we were making plans for my girlfriend to move back to Belgium, only Belgium went back into lockdown”. Fortunately, O’Donnell was awarded a scholarship and they were able to come to an arrangement with the landlord which allowed them to stay. “When they changed course and did base it off what you were earning previously, I did think it was a bit strange. It seemed like a double standard because they basically said we think €350 a week is the minimum that you’re going to need to live on but then they said we’re going to start scaling it down”.
The introduction of coronavirus restrictions has radically changed the university experience for all students. For those who had a part time job for everyday living expenses, the PUP has diminished the need to work. Eoin Macnally was working in the retail sector until non-essential retail had to close at the end of October and plans to return to his job once the restrictions are lifted. “[When the PUP was announced] I definitely thought it was a good idea” Macnally explains, “beyond myself personally also I was glad of basic income coming in”.
“My college experience has been 50/50 working and not working so it was nice to return to that especially in 3rd year when there is a bit more going on and it was completely academically focused.” Alleviating the reliance on a part-time job has given students far more time to focus on college work and removed the stress of having to juggle work with academic obligations. In regard to work and college Macnally puts it like this, “I don’t think they blend perfectly”. The idea of giving stipends to students to subsidise their day to day expenditure is not unheard of in Europe. In the Netherlands, every student has the right to receive a grant during his or her studies. It is available as a loan but changes into a grant on graduation.
The pandemic has changed student life in Ireland into something nearly unrecognisable. Students have had to navigate the world of online learning and zoom with little to no introduction. They have started to be criticised in the press and in certain political circles for perceived recklessness driven by circulation of grainy videos on social media of Spanish Arch in Galway and South William Street in Dublin. Many have had the opportunity to work taken from them and been forced to make difficult decisions. If anything, this crisis has shown the resilience and resolve of students when faced with adversity.