ECEC responds to Government’s blanket gap fee rule with concerns about viability
The early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector has responded to the announcement that services will be able to choose to waive gap fees in the event that they provide education and care to a community which is declared a COVID-19 hotspot for more than seven days, or from the first day of hotspot declaration if a state or territory directs that centres are only open for children of essential workers or vulnerable children.
The decision has received a mixed reaction from the sector, with the Early Learning and Care Council of Australia (ELACCA) warning that, without business support measures for ECEC services in impacted areas, the decision to extend the gap fee waiver will have little effect.
While the decision is, in theory, “a financial win” for families, ELACCA CEO Elizabeth Death said, the plunge in income for services which is caused by waiving the gap fee is not sustainable over a long lockdown.
”As we’ve discovered, a large proportion of early learning and care providers, of all sizes, are not eligible for JobSaver and COVID-19 Disaster Payments,” she emphasised.
In Sydney, the majority of providers have been cash-flow negative for more than six weeks, with no government relief or respite in sight. These providers are grappling with the choice of reinstating gap fees for families, or failing to pay wages for educators.
“It’s an impossible choice,” Ms Death said. “Our sector is willing to shoulder some of the financial burden of the lockdown, but we can’t risk our ongoing viability or the job security of our qualified staff.”
Her perspective was reinforced by that of Jay Weatherill, CEO of advocacy group Thrive by Five, who said “we don’t want to see these early learning centres being forced to lay off educators and close their doors because they aren’t receiving any financial support. It’s an unacceptable situation and the Prime Minister must intervene.
“The sector has already been in crisis for some time and this has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Educators are leaving due to severe financial stress, excessive workloads, unpaid work, and understaffing. Centres are being forced to reduce room sizes and enrolments because they can’t find staff,” he added.
Ms Death called for “the type of business support package the Australian Government rolled out in 2020, when so many early learning and care providers could not access JobKeeper.”
The package Ms Death referred to gave a weekly payment of 25 per cent of regular income, in exchange for services agreeing to keep their doors open and retain all their staff.
Further information about key dates for gap fee waivers and additional allowable absences is available here.