Childcare and COVID-19

May 14, 2020



Another profession carrying a big burden is the early learning profession. Workers in the full range of child care and early learning environments, from family day carers to preschools and long day care centres, have faced an unprecedented situation, where their clients are receiving free child care. While on this side of the House we have a deep belief in the importance of quality early learning, and we love the principle of free child care, none of us expected that the people to be paying the price for the free child care would be the centres themselves or their workers. It is complicated criteria that the government has applied, and directors tell me that they are still coming to terms with it and how they provide the quality learning environment they want with an income that is capped. Their income is capped, but the number of children who come back as restrictions ease is not. The bluntness of JobKeeper as a wage subsidy tool means that newer casuals don't qualify, and it leads to some part-timers earning more and some full-timers earning less. Directors have rostering nightmares.

I've been grateful to the family day carers, like Moochy Kids and Cubbyhouse, and the directors of Hawkesbury and Blue Mountains centres, who've Zoomed with me and shared with me their challenges and the lengths they've gone to to keep their children safe. I say to them: you've let me into the anxious world that you're surviving in, and you've allowed me and Labor to advocate on your behalf.
Parents are also feeling the stress—from the ones who called because they were worried their centre might close to people like Kieran Ashton, who wants his youngest daughter to join his son at Cubbyhouse in coming months and recognises that Tracey won't get paid for it. He's happy to pay but he isn't allowed, so it's a system with flaws.

Early Learning on George, in the Hawkesbury, is one centre battling bureaucracy. Director Karen Nightingale tried to have her numbers reassessed through exceptional circumstances, because her centre had two days of low numbers after a tree fell across the centre's backyard in a storm, which was during the reporting period. Her application was rejected based on her post-COVID numbers, but Karen tells me she's seeing an increase in attendances. She will be back to 97 per cent capacity every day next week, but funding it on the lower income. While Karen recognises JobKeeper has made a massive difference—and we knew a wage subsidy would; that's why we badgered the government and we're pleased they introduced it—she won't have funding for all the children returning next week without a review of her income. These are the challenges that people are facing day to day.

I can't stress how important financial security is to helping people keep good mental health at this time. To even suggest that financial support is to be wound back or reviewed in some way, or that you have to keep proving eligibility, is a really cruel thing to do, especially given that only this week is JobKeeper money starting to get into most people's accounts.