By Colin MacGillivray
Whittlesea childcare centres face a crippling financial burden under Melbourne’s stage-four COVID-19 restrictions after Federal Government support for childcare workers was scaled back last month.
Whittlesea joined the rest of metropolitan Melbourne under Victoria’s stage-four restrictions last week.
Among the stage-four restrictions is a requirement that only children of essential workers can be placed into childcare.
The restrictions have left some childcare centres struggling after the Federal Government revoked eligibility for its JobKeeper payments for childcare workers.
The government also stopped its subsidy for free childcare under the Early Childhood Education and Care Relief Package, meaning families would once again begin paying for childcare.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week announced the Federal Government would provide a transition payment of 30 per cent of pre-COVID-19 revenue for all childcare centres in Melbourne.
But Mernda Community Early Learning Centre manager Santina Rocca said many services, including her own, would struggle under the new arrangement.
“Services that were running at about 80 per cent occupancy prior to COVID-19 should be able to stay above water even with the lockdown, because the amount the government is injecting will suffice, but anyone that was below 80 per cent occupancy will really struggle,” she said.
“What it means for services that stay open is that many staff members will lose their jobs and, for many services, there will be a compromising of quality of care for children.
“With us in particular, it has affected us because we’re a new service and we only opened at the start of the COVID outbreak.
“[For new services] it basically depends on the owners and how they budgeted for the first two years.
“We’re one of the services where the owners have budgeted for something like this, so the service will continue to operate even with only six children.
“But any other service that is new and hasn’t budgeted for something like this, I’m quite certain that doors will be shut very soon.”
Ms Rocca said she disagreed with the government’s policy of subsidising 30 per cent of each centre’s pre-COVID-19 revenue, as it disproportionately benefited centres that already had high enrolment numbers.
“It’s pretty unfair because they’ve supported the ones that are already high in occupancy, and the ones that are not they’ve let drown,” she said.
“That’s pretty low. They should have done something that would help the services the same across the board. It shouldn’t have been based on occupancy, it should have been maybe a flat level where everyone got the same.
“Now what they’ve done to the industry is made the rich richer and the poor poorer.”
State Member for Yan Yean Danielle Green called for the Federal Government to reinstate JobKeeper eligibility for childcare workers.
“I understand that parents and childcare workers will have mixed feelings about access to childcare due to the impact of stage-four lockdowns,” she said.
“However, sizeable outbreaks at two childcare centres in Whittlesea reinforce that this is the right thing to do to keep children and workers safe.
“I sincerely hope that the Federal Government will reconsider its decision to curtail JobKeeper to the childcare sector.
“This is highly discriminatory against this valuable but lowly paid and overwhelmingly female workforce.
“The State Government has done its bit in making kinder free for term three and the Federal Government has made some changes to assist families using care, but it must do more for the workers.”
Ms Rocca said she had been in the childcare industry for 25 years and witnessed low points including the collapse of the ABC Learning chain in 2008, but had never seen an industry-wide challenge on this scale.
She said her centre had already been stripped back to its barest operating minimum.
“Unfortunately some staff have been stood down, but there was no other choice,” she said.
“I feel for a lot of people who have gone into the industry for the first time, because they’re really going to suffer.
“The government should have given a minimum of JobKeeper – at least our staff could have kept their jobs.”