5 May 2020

Free childcare announcement greeted cautiously by hard hit local sector

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Childcare providers

Childcare providers say that the free childcare announcement may not be enough to save their services. Photo: File.

Canberra’s childcare providers have given cautious approval to the Federal Government’s free childcare announcement but say there are still huge gaps in an arrangement described by the industry’s peak body as “cumbersome and unnecessarily complex”.

Childcare centres nationally have taken a huge hit as attendance and fees have fallen by up to 90 per cent in recent weeks due to concerns around COVID-19.

The sector’s significance lies in the fact that without childcare, parents can’t return to work when restrictions lift. Additionally, many not-for-profit centres use profits to fund social outreach services for vulnerable people. The sector had been calling for the Federal Government to release the funds already earmarked for the childcare subsidy.

But yesterday (2 April) Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan announced that childcare will be free from Monday. A lesser subsidy to centres based on their last fortnight of operation before 1 March is being offered and centres can access the Government’s JobKeeper payment.

Mandy Green, Jenny Kitchin, Lee Maiden

Jenny Kitchin CEO of Woden Community Service, Lee Maiden CEO of Communities@Work and Mandy Green. CEO of Belconnen Community Service. Photo: Region Media.

CEO of Communities@Work Lee Maiden said the announcement was welcome as it provides continuity of care for families and a level of sustainability for childcare operators, but she said Communities@Work was still examining the detail.

“Our early education and care services and families who use our services have been significantly impacted by this crisis,” she said.

“Communities@Work has seen declines in attendance of as much as 90 per cent in some services and we know other service providers are in a similar position.”

Belconnen Community Services CEO Mandy Green says that universal access to free early education and care is a good thing but that it’s of utmost importance that the JobKeeper package applies to all services to ensure their ongoing viability. She’s also arguing for the provision of personal protective equipment for educators to ensure their safety and that of the children they’re caring for.

Jenny Kitchin from Woden Community Service agrees that on the face of it, the announcement is a good start, but there are plenty of unanswered questions.

“If we can get the JobKeeper subsidy then it becomes more viable for the organisation as a whole,” she said.

“But obviously the government is working out policy as fast as we are. I applaud the attempt to keep the centres open but we are still picking through the implications.”

The details are what concerns the peak body for childcare, Early Childhood Australia.

“I think the first thing to say is it was a surprise to everyone,” ECA CEO Sam Page said.

“I think it was aimed at reassuring families they could continue to access services even in the face of job insecurity and falling incomes and from that point of view, it’s been well-received.”

But for service providers, it’s a bit more complicated, especially where multipurpose not-for-profits are concerned.

If childcare is only one part of their operation and other services have specific government funding, the operation as a whole may not have seen its revenue fall by more than 30 per cent to access the JobKeeper payment.

“Half your services might be in homelessness or domestic violence, and half of them in childcare. Usually, the childcare would subsidise the other services but although the childcare operation has been devastated, the organisation as a whole might not meet the criteria,” Ms Page says.

ECA is calling for the Government to assess revenue at an individual service level, or to exclude government grant funding when assessing eligibility.

YWCA CEO Frances Crimmins is also worried by the suggestion that anyone can access childcare from Monday onwards.

“We are trying to work within the parameters the government has given us, but the blanket statement that even if you never used the service, you can do this from Monday is simply not possible,” she says.

“We need to look after our own staff wellbeing, our food supply chains have been cut like everyone else. We need time to mobilise for increased demand.”

Ms Crimmins says the phones starting ringing with people requiring full-time care as the Prime Minister was speaking. As a starting point, she says the YWCA would honour the bookings existing bookings for care, but could make no guarantees beyond that.

Education Minister Yvette Berry agreed that the situation was complex, particularly where not-for-profits did not often operate as standalone services and she asked for patience.

“I haven’t done a pandemic before, this is new for all of us”, she said at a press conference today. “We are navigating our way through as best as possible and working with experts to keep the sector viable and supported”.

Ms Berry said she’d met with industry representatives including the United Workers Union today and was looking to relieve anxiety for workers in the sector, and to help with providing personal protective equipment and cleaning assistance.

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