Families paying out-of-pocket for childcare to qualify for work subsidy promise

Jess van der Walt estimates that at least one day of her salary per week is spent on childcare costs.

The 34-year-old juggles many Australian families.

The Sydneysider works full-time in human resources while raising her two-year-old daughter Estelle with her husband Izak, who is a doctor in training.

Ms van der Walt said she sometimes wondered if it was worth it financially.

“Right now we’re paying almost all of the fees…you guessed it every few months,” she said.

The pair will benefit from Labor’s promise to increase subsidies and raise the household income threshold to $530,000 from July next year.

“It’s ultimately a three- or four-year commitment…but for me, I guess advancing my career is pretty important, so it’s worth the cost,” Ms. van der Walt said.

Absent families

While the Labor Party has pledged to have the ACCC regulate prices and the Productivity Commission review the sector, meanwhile thousands of families continue to lack childcare.

Among them is new mom Sophie Papasergio.

The 30-year-old only gave birth to Isabelle seven weeks ago but entered her daughter’s name for a spot when she became pregnant.

Sophie Papasergio has been told by nurseries that she won’t get a place until at least the middle of next year.(ABC News: Andrew Seabourne)

She is a beautician who runs her own business and has been told by centers in her home town of Broome that she will not get a place until at least the middle of next year.

“It’s a little stressful. I’m glad I still have my partner who can work so we’re still financially stable,” she said.

“As much as I love spending every minute with her. I just want to be able to go out and work…I don’t want to waste all my hard work.

More workers and higher wages needed

During the election, the Labor Party sold its childcare policy as a victory for families and women.

But while experts agreed the changes would initially make care cheaper, they say there is an urgent need to attract more workers to meet the demand for places.

Elizabeth Hill, a political economy expert at the University of Sydney, said increasing subsidies alone would not solve the sector’s structural problems.

“Low wages are the number one challenge for workforce sustainability in the model,” she said.

“Essentially, the money for those salaries will have to come from the government.”

The national authority has estimated that 39,000 additional childcare staff will be needed by next year.

Mira Ghamwari has 13 years of industry experience under her belt, but is among those considering other options.

“Personally, I’m looking for a different career,” said the worker from Adelaide.

A photo of a woman, standing in front of a colored background.
Mira Ghamwari says low wages push workers out of the sector.(ABC News: Ben Pettitt)

She wants politicians to think about staff efforts for the physical, emotional and psychological development of young children.

“Wages are a big issue. That’s what drives everyone out of the industry.”

A “very tired” guard staff

Many operators and the industry union agree that the pandemic has only exacerbated a long-standing problem.

“COVID has had a major impact on the sector and on the workforce,” said Elizabeth Death, CEO of the Early Learning and Care Council of Australia.

“We have a very tired workforce at the moment who have been on the front line.”

Elizabeth Death
Elizabeth Death, CEO of the Early Learning and Care Council of Australia, says the pandemic has exacerbated problems in the childcare sector.(ABC News: Byran Milliss)

Helen Gibbons, executive director of early education at the United Voice union, said there had been a crisis before COVID.

“We’ve already seen vacancies and really big turnover in the industry,” she said.

“But COVID has made this a million times worse,” she said,

The United Workers Union has called on the federal government to direct funding specifically tied to educators’ salaries as an interim measure.

“Over 50% of the industry is there to make money and that’s not a sustainable system in this country,” she said.

“We need sector reform.”

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