FOR eight years, Deb Sowerby and her daughter Kendall Sadler have put their heart and soul into their thriving community cafe The Letter Q in Joslin Street, Kotara.
As her daughter was homeschooling her primary-aged children on Tuesday, Mrs Sowerby was - like so many other small businesses that have kept afloat against so many odds - trying to comprehend what the federal government's latest lifeline means for her.
The JobKeeper wage subsidy package includes a $1500 payment to workers at those companies hardest hit by the pandemic to help them retain staff, provided the business can show a drop in revenue of at least 30 per cent. There are also supplementary payments of $550 a fortnight for JobSeeker and other benefit recipients to help those losing work and their jobs during the crisis.
The Letter Q has eight casual staff and Mrs Sowerby is aware that, to be eligible for a wage subsidy, workers including casuals must have held their job for 12 months.
She was still waiting for her accountant to clarify and "dig down into the restrictions" relating to staff, which she has so far managed to hold on to by changing her business model.
"I've seen lobbying from different organisations saying some of this is not fair to casual workers because they are a transient workforce, people come and go and are at uni and have job placements and can't work continuously for 12 months," she says. "Most of our staff are students, they might go for three months and we keep their job for them to return to but effectively they are not receiving a wage. There are so many grey areas."
Mrs Sowerby welcomed the JobKeeper package however it is too soon to know if it will help her business.
Two thirds of The Letter Q's turnover is from catering - clients include John Hunter Hospital, the University of Newcastle and the Mater - and the rest is in its coffee and cafe trade.
Mrs Sowerby says the catering business was traditionally quiet in January and February but had dropped off sharply in the past week. Now it could be a matter of chasing receipts and accounts if the business decides to try and access some of the stimulus benefits as a company and employer.
"We need to have the cafe open for catering, and so people see what we can do, and our catering is now non-existent," she said.
"The hospitals have a 90-day payment term which we've managed to get to 60 days, so anything we we did in January and February we receive in March. If we can show that we have had an invoiced sales reduction in March then it is likely we can qualify for a 30 per cent reduction in sales, because there are no invoices this month which means no payments in April, May June."
The Letter Q's new business model hinges on baking fresh, family meals for free delivery in Newcastle. "We are still holding on to our staff because we have adapted - we are making delivering to people who are isolated with family meals like lasagnas, risottos and healthy options," she said.
The Letter Q has teamed up with its green grocer supplier, Fruit Brothers, to help customers get more from each visit to its cafe.
"We are selling fresh produce because in our shopping strip no-one is selling the staple fruit and vegetables, and we've have a great response to that," she said.
"People are popping in to grab a coffee, we are providing a community service as well as enticing them to grab fruit and veges or a home meal."
For now, trade is sustainable, however Mrs Sowerby said she had noticed a drop in patronage amid the government's tougher isolation restrictions: "Kids are being homeschooled, we have halved trade in the past two days but it's too early to say if that will last - it can be quiet and then bam, it's busy."
Mrs Sowerby praised "generous and loyal" locals who had supported her cafe, a veteran fundraiser for schools and charities.
"Every single person who has walked in has said, 'Thanks for being open, thanks for persevering, we understand it's one person standing inside only,'" she said. "We are taking more precautions than we need to and people are not upset, they just want to support us."
A Newcastle mechanic with three staff said JobKeeper was a welcome safety net.
"We are busy, we have a good reputation and people still need their car fixed. If it goes quiet, you don't know whether to put them off or not. No-one knows what to do," said the man, who wished to remain anonymous.