‘It breaks my heart’: Pandemic puts Malvern East business owner out of work at 58
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‘It breaks my heart’: Pandemic puts Malvern East business owner out of work at 58

Fiona Caffery never thought she’d be looking for a job at 58.

The small business owner was planning on working for another five years before selling her travel agency, scaling back her hours and retiring.

Fiona Caffery ran a successful travel agency before the pandemic hit, but now finds herself “effectively unemployed”.

Fiona Caffery ran a successful travel agency before the pandemic hit, but now finds herself “effectively unemployed”.Credit:Jason South

“That’s all been thrown out of the window,” she says.

Like many operators in the travel industry, the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on Caffery’s small, but previously profitable, business in Melbourne’s Malvern East.

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While Caffery has seen her share of disruptions to the travel sector during her 38-year career – terrorism attacks, tsunamis, earthquakes and economic downturns – nothing compares to coronavirus.

“Overnight, through no fault of my own, my business is worth nothing,” she says.

While Caffery and two of her employees at Travel Sense each receive a fortnightly JobKeeper payment of $1000 from the federal government, her share has been entirely consumed by business costs and customer refunds.

She no longer has a shopfront, bidding farewell to it last year in order to cut costs.

Staff now work from home, but there are still insurance, administration costs, licensing fees, IT fees and accounting bills.

Caffery says she hasn’t taken home a salary in more than a year. She also lost money on another business venture – a salt therapy franchise – which was forced into liquidation last year at the height of the pandemic. “I’m effectively unemployed,” she says.

At the end of March, the JobKeeper payments keeping her 13-year-old travel agency afloat are set to come to an end. She’ll have to let go of her staff, a sad, but unavoidable outcome after a horror 12 months.

“It breaks my heart,” she says, her voice wavering.

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“I’m a responsible business owner and these staff have been very hardworking, loyal and helped me build my business to what it is today.

“They are like family.”

She’s applied for work in office administration, catering and at hotels, but hasn’t heard back from anyone yet. She knows competition is fierce and suspects her age might be working against her.

“There’s probably 100 other people who have applied for these positions,” she says.

She’s concerned the federal government’s JobMaker scheme – which gives hiring credits of up to $200 a week to businesses that employ workers under the age 35 – might make it harder to find work.

It’s a policy that is being closely monitored by National Seniors Australia, which says the government must ensure it doesn’t disadvantage one group while trying to help another.

Ian Henschke, the organisation’s chief advocate, says even before the pandemic older Australians were worried about losing their job and being shut out of the workforce.

“The failure to curb age discrimination, coupled with the increase to the pension age, and now high unemployment due to the pandemic makes the situation worse,” he says.

But there are some positive signs, with the latest Bureau of Statistics figures showing the proportion of older employees in the workforce had almost returned to pre-pandemic levels. In December, 5.4 per cent of 55-to 64-year-olds were unemployed, down from 5.8 per cent in July.

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As well as the JobKeeper payments, Caffery has received $38,000 in state government grants for small businesses. While she’s “incredibly grateful” for the assistance, she was embarrassed to ask for help.

“I’m horrified to have to lean on the government,” she says.

“I’m a very independent person, and have supported myself, worked hard, paid my taxes all my life.”

Instead of helping customers plan their dream holidays, Caffery now spends most of her time cancelling holidays and arranging refunds from airlines, tour operators and accommodation providers.

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Before the pandemic, Caffery’s business used to have an annual turnover of $3 million, but the ongoing border closures has reduced this to almost nothing. While she had some success selling domestic travel experiences before Christmas, a spate of border closures brought that business to an abrupt halt.

“With so much uncertainty, clients are hesitant to book anything at all and you don’t blame them,” she says.

“It’s hard to feel positive when it’s all just cancelling and refunding.”

There’s a bungalow at the back of Caffery’s Glen Iris home that’s filled with desks, couches, filing cabinets and brochure stands from her former shopfront. She wants to sell the furniture, but something is holding her back. “It’s been a real grief process,” she says.

While it’s unlikely Caffery will reopen a shopfront, she is determined to keep her business running, even if she’s the only employee.

She says her “incredibly loyal and supportive” clients have about $100,000 in travel credits that will be used for long-awaited holidays once borders reopen and a COVID-19 vaccine is available.

“I want to be there to look after them,” she says.

“Australians love to travel and need to travel. In the post-COVID world we will need travel agents more than ever. We need to keep the travel industry alive. I’ve just got to work out how to survive in between.”

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