26 March 2020

Childcare sector says they won't survive beyond COVID-19 without urgent help

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Frances Crimmins

Frances Crimmins says the childcare sector in the ACT may not survive the COVID crisis without urgent help. Photo: Genevieve Jacobs.

One of Canberra’s largest not for profit childcare and social services providers says that unless the Commonwealth Government urgently releases childcare subsidy funds, the ACT sector faces devastating consequences and may not survive the COVID-19 crisis.

Speaking today at the Campbell Cottage Child Care Centre, YWCA chief executive officer Frances Crimmins issued a blunt warning that as 70 to 90 per cent of parents remove their children from childcare centres and most stop paying fees, the sector cannot survive the hit, with dire consequences for the economy and children’s safety.

“The childcare subsidy already exists and is budgeted. Now what’s occurring is the government is just not having to pay it out. So the money is there, we actually just want the money already there to be paid out,” she said.

“Without income from the childcare subsidy, most centres will be closed within a few weeks and, by that, I mean insolvent. There will be very limited opportunities for people to re-open rapidly after the crisis.”

While the absentee policy for childcare has been relaxed, Ms Crimmins said that many parents are withdrawing their children completely because they can no longer pay the fees to keep their places. When there are no fees from parents, no childcare subsidy is paid and consequently, there is no income for centres.

“I can totally respect a parent’s position, particularly if they have just been made unemployed. But the notion that a parent can continue to pay early learning fees through absenteeism for months is not a good policy position because it doesn’t see the income flowing through to us,” Ms Crimmins said.

While there is a COVID-19 provision in place for paying some childcare subsidies, that can only happen if a child, employee or an educator contracts the disease, a situation Ms Crimmins described as “appalling”.

A number of YWCA staff will be stood down from close of business tomorrow (27 March), but Ms Crimmins said the centres must be able to stay open where parents are playing an essential role in the crisis.

“Essential workers like medical professionals still need childcare for their kids, and Canberra needs a childcare sector when social isolation restrictions cease,” she said.

“If we could retain 50 per cent of funding, we could provide professional development for staff, people in traineeships could continue from home and we could ensure that we could staff our centres as required to meet all regulations for those people who really need them. Then we can start bringing our employees straight back in as soon as this is over.

“The other risk is that we see people going into ad hoc care arrangements and we lose the regulation framework. Children’s safety is number one. As soon as we see that occur, that’s a high risk for children.”

Ms Crimmins also made a plea for childcare workers to have the right to be tested early like healthcare workers and receive essential personal protective equipment.

“We are asking them to put their health on the line to care for only those who should be in care,” she said

“We don’t want our centres full, we only want those who need the care”.

Member for Canberra Alicia Payne, who was also at the press conference, said the Commonwealth needed to urgently come up with an action plan for childcare.

“Early childhood workers will lose their jobs but people in essential services won’t be able to work because they are caring for their children,” she said, adding there was a real risk that childcare centres will not continue to exist after the crisis passed.

“Centres are being asked to stay open so they can continue to do their jobs. The incredible work they do is even harder when you are ensuring strict hygiene and containing any risk. Social distancing with toddlers is challenging to say the least when they can’t access the essential equipment they need.

“If you can stay home, do so, lives are at stake. But some people can’t,” she said.

Ms Crimmins said that like many not-for-profits, the YWCA had created diversified income streams that were not reliant on government funding, and that the childcare crisis had the potential to seriously affect all YWCA programs.

“We’ve all done what the government told us to do and become independent,” she said. “You got the lecture not to rely on government funding, but now everything has evaporated. All the mechanisms set up to maintain funding for all our other programs have gone.

“We need a policy position now. We can’t afford to wait another week. We need to retain the sector and keep it and the community safe.”

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My observations are that childcare directors have not yet taken this seriously enough. They need to circle the wagons, look at their which of their activities are vital, and which are “nice to haves”. Their budgets need to be examined line-by-line and unnecessary costs should be eliminated.

Many have got unproductive staff (middle managers, trainers, etc), who should be dispensable during crisis times.

It seems many centres are continuing business as usual, which is unsustainable for even a few more weeks.

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