COVID-19 could be catalyst for childcare crisis as stressed, exhausted staff consider leaving
Childcare workers say they are exhausted and centres are struggling to fill job vacancies as the sector continues to deal with the impact of the coronavirus.
After an initial exodus of children from care — removed by parents concerned about COVID-19 or those who had lost their jobs — the introduction of free child care in April saw centres inundated.
“We were obviously getting a lot of children of the essential workers coming through,” said Affinity Education’s Miranda Mason, who manages its Townsville Milestones centres in Queensland.
Ms Mason said demand jumped more than 20 per cent when free childcare was introduced.
Five months later, they still had 14 job vacancies across their seven Townsville centres.
With a quarter of the industry’s workforce casual, many staff left the sector after COVID-19 hit, with those ineligible for the JobKeeper payment moving into different employment or onto JobSeeker.
At a time when many centres were on the brink of collapse, Ms Mason said the Government’s rescue package of JobKeeper payments and free childcare was a critical lifeline.
“It was comforting knowing that we were able … to support the educators and keep their jobs during that time period,” she said.
Childcare crisis ‘looming’
Childcare sector representatives fear coronavirus will be the catalyst for a workforce crisis, exacerbating long-standing staff shortages.
Australia’s biggest childcare provider, Goodstart Early Learning, had 1,400 jobs open in the first week of October, 491 of which were in Queensland.
United Workers Union early education director Helen Gibbons said workers felt abandoned, stressed and exhausted.
With fewer casuals available, she said staff were working longer hours, picking up more shifts and missing out on study or development days to fill shortages.
“It was sometimes messy and a bit of a struggle for centres, but there wasn’t the same sort of shortage then that has developed now,” Ms Gibbons said.
“I hear daily from early educators that they either intend to leave the sector really soon or they will as soon as the economy bounces back,” she said.
Ms Gibbons said the replacement of the industry’s JobKeeper payments in July with transition payments was the final straw for some workers.
“It is a looming crisis in this sector that we are going to see less and less people wanting to work in this sector because they can see how devalued they were through this whole pandemic,” Ms Gibbons said.
With income dependent on enrolments, coronavirus has created uncertainty in the early childhood sector.
Not-for-profit C&K operates 350 centres across Queensland.
Chief operating officer Sandra Cheeseman said its stable workforce meant it had not had significant staffing concerns, but forward planning had been a challenge.
“We still don’t know what this is going to look like 12 months or two years from now,” Dr Cheeseman said.
“So it is a lot of trying to project in a very unknown world but at the same time really keeping our eye on … security and stability for children and families.”
She said a childcare crisis could be avoided with greater recognition of the importance of early childhood education.
“Without those government packages there is no doubt the sector would have crumbled, so we need to be really careful that it is not business as usual,” Dr Cheeseman said.
“If the situation changes so that it is unaffordable for families then the sector will be in crisis, and families will be in crisis.”
Minister urges pay rises
Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan is urging the sector to “better market careers” to the 6.9 per cent of Australians who are unemployed.
Mr Tehan said higher wages could lure workers to the industry but it was up to employers to pay more.
“It is open to providers to offer their employees more money to attract and retain staff — that is a how competition works,” he said.
‘Real collapse of morale’
They may be short-staffed but childcare centres say they can meet staff ratios and implement the required coronavirus precautions.
However, with added daily responsibilities around sanitisation and workers stressing over the sector’s uncertain future, Ms Gibbons fears the current level of staffing is unsustainable.
“The wages are still low, but the work has become more exhausting and more stressful, and people working in the sector have seen a real collapse of morale,” she said.
“They will probably get through in the short term, but it is not sustainable — you can’t continue to burn out your educators.”