13 July 2020

Community centres brace for more uncertainty as free childcare ends

| Dominic Giannini
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Communities @ Work

Communities@Work is expecting a 5 to 10 per cent reduction in enrolments and attendance. Photo: Supplied.

Childcare centres across Australia are bracing for a drop off in enrolments after the Commonwealth Government’s free childcare subsidy ended today (13 July).

Capital Region Community Services (CRCS), which provides childcare and youth services across the capital region, estimates it has already lost hundreds of thousands of dollars from its early childcare services because of COVID-19. Now CEO Mandy Green is worried the financial burden will be placed back on struggling families.

“The overarching fundamental principle for us is we believe all children should have free, universal access to early education, but of course we know that is not going to happen,” she said.

“This will put significant pressure on families who rely on early education to have to pay, and things are not back to normal.”

One CRCS centre in the ACT is running at a $100,000 deficit alone, she said.

The Commonwealth Government stepped up in April to make childcare free after parents started withdrawing their children from care in large numbers. The Government’s scheme paid childcare operators 50 per cent of the sector’s fees.

However, despite childcare operators being able to get the full hourly rate back once the scheme ends, Ms Green says the counterbalance of parents pulling children out because they cannot afford the new rates will offset any additional revenue.

“We have all these fundamental principles about access, but for us from an operating perspective this is difficult for us financially,” she said.

“[Revenue] is going to be exactly the same because once it stops being free, parents will start to pull their children out, so we are not seeing a huge change in terms of enrolment and utilisation. It is still really low.”

From next week (20 July), childcare workers will also be kicked off the Commonwealth’s $1500/fortnight JobKeeper payment, which only adds insult to injury, Ms Green said.

“That is unbelievable because they must be the lowest-paid workforce in Australia and they are female-dominated and that is completely unacceptable,” Ms Green said.

Capital Region Community Services CEO Mandy Green

Mandy Green says the changes to free childcare will mean some vulnerable children will miss out. Photo: Region Media.

“The majority of our educators are women so you can imagine the pressures that they are under. You would be disgusted to find out what their award wages are.

“To do that and remove subsidies and put the pressure on families to pay, as a cycle it is atrocious.”

It is a similar story at Communities@Work, a not-for-profit organisation serving the community in Canberra and the surrounding region.

CEO Lee Maiden told Region Media that the uncertainty created by the ending of subsidies has made it difficult to plan for this financial year as the JobKeeper announcement came after the service had already planned for 2020-21.

“It was a bit of a surprise. We were not prepared for it at all. Our educators have been on the front line from the day this all started. They have continued to work and be there supporting families,” Ms Maiden said.

“It is very, very hard to understand why we were targeted and singled out against all the other workers. I do not think the educators felt great about it because they have been out there for families throughout the whole pandemic.

“We have been very fortunate that we have not had to stand anybody down but we just do not know what it is going to look like going forward. If the same things that happened in Victoria happened to us, then we are in dire straits.”

CEO Lee Maiden

Communities@Work CEO Lee Maiden says the end of free children coupled with childcare workers being kicked off JobKeeper is a double-whammy for the industry. Photo by Daniella Jukic

The Government will provide 25 per cent of a childcare centre’s pre-COVID-19 revenue – down from 50 per cent during the free childcare subsidy period – however, the payments come with the caveat that no staff are laid off.

It provides a new challenge for childcare centres who will have to balance staff levels to maintain their eligibly for the 25 per cent payment, but also manage reveune from the expected drop off in enrolments, Ms Maiden said. She called the transition “messy”.

Communities@Work is expecting a 5 to 10 per cent reduction in enrolments and attendance; however, the actual numbers could be higher as the estimates are only based on a survey, she said.

“This will be the first tipping point but it is just a matter of let’s wait and see. However, the second tipping point will come in September when the JobKeeper payment ends for everyone.”

Original Article published by Dominic Giannini on The RiotACT.

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