Thousands of sole traders – including make-up artists, brow and lash therapists and salon workers – have been told by the Australian Taxation Office that they may need to pay back any JobKeeper payments they’ve received.

ATO forums have been inundated with sole traders expressing their frustration with correspondence notifying them of audits, and in come cases reportedly suspending their payments altogether.

Separate reports have cited cases of sole traders being told by the ATO that they were ineligible for JobKeeper because their business was registered after July 1 last year, a point that many claim they weren’t aware was part of the criteria to receive the payment.

“I heard from the ATO today that I am not eligible for JobKeeper as there is no 2019 comparison for the drop in my income, even though it has dropped 70 per cent since COVID-19,” one sole trader wrote on an ATO forum. “I have been receiving the payment and now am looking down the barrel of having to pay back nearly $8000. Because of some fine print that wasn’t made clear!”

The enforcement action comes just over a week after the ATO published a statement on its website warning businesses about forthcoming reviews to their JobKeeper enrolment and declaration forms.

It appears in many cases sole traders enrolled in JobKeeper under the headline turnover test, as opposed to the alternative test criteria, which would allow them to access the program if they were trading less than 12 months.

Australian small business ombudsman Kate Carnell said the ATO must resolve the issue as quickly as possible. “Certainly our view was that if a business could show it was up and running and that it was trading, e.g. they had some sales prior to March 1, that they were in,” Kate says.

“People are living on this money — this is food and rent and all the rest of it as they try to keep their businesses afloat.

“Instead of suspending, they [the ATO] should be investigating and only suspending if its found they are ineligible,” Kate says.

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