Coronavirus

Women fear they will have to stop working when childcare fees return

Parents groups say women will be disproportionately affected when the government pulls funding from the childcare sector next month, leaving many with no choice but to stop working.

Australian parents are worried they will have no choice but to cut down on their working hours and pull their children out of childcare when fees return next month.

The federal government announced on Monday that childcare fees will resume from 13 July and JobKeeper payments to the sector will finish one week later on 20 July.

Education Minister Dan Tehan cited increased demand in the sector as the main reason for pulling funding, but Georgie Dent from parents advocacy group The Parenthood said that demand would not last when fees return.

"While the health risks seem to be more contained now than in March and April, the economic reverberations of this pandemic are nowhere near finished, and the idea that in four weeks' time we can return to normal and families will be in the same financial situation as they were before is just unrealistic," Ms Dent told SBS News.

"We surveyed 2,280 Australian families and roughly half of those using early childhood education have lost income and 34 per cent said they'd have to reduce the number of days their children attend or remove them altogether if the fees returned." 

When the coronavirus pandemic hit Australia, 30 per cent of childcare centres saw their attendance cut in half, while 50 per cent saw a client drop-off of more than 20 per cent.

But with the government's subsidies in effect, attendance had rebounded back up to 74 per cent of its typical total by mid-May.

Ms Dent said women would disproportionately bear the economic brunt of fees returning, with two-thirds of families telling The Parenthood they would need to cut down on work - and it would be the women who dropped hours. 

"We know this pandemic has already had a very gendered impact, we know women are bearing the majority of job losses and we know that those losses come off the back of lower earning generally," she said.

"So, we can absolutely anticipate that it will be women who have to either reduce their own work or who will be compromised in their ability to return to work." 

Providers feel uncertain

Mr Tehan said he was confident the demand for childcare centres would remain strong when the government pulls back funding next month.

"When we put our emergency relief package in place, that was designed to make sure that the sector remained open and remained viable, and that's exactly what it achieved," he told ABC News Breakfast on Tuesday. 

"Now we've got to make sure that we can transition for this increased demand, and we've got to make sure that those children who need care can get it."

That transition is set to be aided by a $708 million package to be shared among Australia's childcare providers, which Mr Tehan said would constitute "a tiny bit less" in funding than the current JobKeeper payments are providing.

Australian Childcare Alliance president Paul Mondo said providers were feeling increasingly unsure about the coming weeks and months, but he agreed the sector could not continue to survive without fee-paying families.

"Theres one big problem - if the current arrangements were in place for another three months, a lot of childcare providers wouldn't exist at the end of that, so there wouldn't be a lot of services for people to return to," he told SBS News.

"The main reason is that the funding the services were receiving were only about 50 per cent of its revenue plus receiving JobKeeper, so it didn't matter how many children they had, they were receiving the same amount of money, so it wasn't covering the types of fees that they would usually receive from parent payments." 

Subsidies will remain for parents who have been impacted economically by the pandemic, with the government offering up to 100 hours of subsidised care.

Mr Mondo said he is expecting some degree of drop-off in demand when fees return, but said more revenue would mean childcare centres could service more families.

"From our perspective, to deliver our service now in this climate with increased hygiene practises and with a whole lot of different measures to maintain health guidelines, that takes a whole lot of extra human resourcing," he said.

"That was kind of OK when our occupancies were low, but it's becoming harder and harder now and therefore ultimately leads to increased cost." 

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