Emergency workers lose child care in ‘unintended consequence’ of coronavirus rescue package

Emergency workers across Australia who use government-subsidised nannies have had their care withdrawn and are scrambling for other childcare options, because of the Federal Government’s new policy to make child care free.

Key points:

  • Paramedic James Marshall took a month off work to care for his children after their family lost a nanny
  • Police officers Patrick and Sarah had their care cancelled within days of the child care rescue package being announced
  • The president of the Australian Home Childcare Association said it was an “unintended consequence” of the coronavirus response

Three weeks ago, the Federal Government announced its childcare industry rescue package, which was partly designed to help frontline workers during the coronavirus crisis.

But in what the In Home Care (IHC) sector believes was an unintended consequence, the changes also saw payments from the Federal Government to some childcare businesses diminished.

Many agencies have withdrawn their nannies from shiftworkers and stood down their employees because they cannot afford to pay them anymore.

Melbourne emergency doctor Claire Wilkin-Marshall received an email from her agency saying their child care had been cancelled, which she said “torpedoed” the lives of her and husband James Marshall, a paramedic with Ambulance Victoria.

“Initially I kind of read it and thought … that doesn’t make any sense. I’d seen on the news there would be free child care for health workers and I thought, that can’t be right, ” Dr Wilkin-Marshall said.

“We kind of went from feeling we had everything reasonably under control and we could continue working … [to] actually no, none of the things you thought you’d be able to do are going to be possible.”

Mr Marshall is on a month’s leave to care for the couple’s three children and they are not sure what they will do after that.

“We want to go to work, but if we have kids at home who need to be looked after, then that gets really hard,” he said.

The couple are unable to use traditional childcare centres because they both work weekends, as well as early morning and late evening shifts.

Childcare centres only cater for those who work traditional business hours.

It is a dilemma also facing Patrick and his wife Sarah*, two general duties officers with Victoria Police.

“When you ring triple-0, we’re the ones who come,” Patrick said, describing their work as first responders.

Their care was cancelled within days of the Government announcement to make child care free.

Now they are juggling care by taking days of carers leave, and getting Patrick’s parents to look after their two children.

“Given they’re older and vulnerable, and our jobs potentially expose us [to COVID-19], that’s unfortunate. We’re lucky my parents are willing but it’s a risk,” Patrick said.

“We’re also having to apply for flexible work arrangements, which is hard on the station, and I know of other officers in the same position as us.”

Patrick said he had called many traditional childcare centres in his area, but they said they would not accept new clients, even though he told them he was a frontline worker.

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Payments for In Home Care changed under free child care plan

The IHC system allows shiftworkers and families in distress to access government-subsidised nannies employed by accredited agencies.

Unlike the traditional childcare system, the IHC system was unaffected financially by the COVID-19 crisis as many of the families they catered for still needed to go to work and therefore needed care.

Then the Government announced its rescue package.

Under the changes, the payments childcare centres received through the Commonwealth’s Child Care Subsidy have been abolished, along with the gap fee that parents paid.

Instead, services receive a weekly payment from the Federal Government that is roughly half of what they were earning before the pandemic, and they can apply for additional funds under the JobKeeper program and other exceptional circumstance programs.

Australian Home Childcare Association president Nicole Morgan said the “unintended consequence has severely impacted the ability of In Home Care providers to continue to care for many desperate families”.

She said the majority of agency nannies were not eligible for JobKeeper, and they had not seen any funding flow from exceptional circumstance applications.

Ms Morgan has stood down 60 per cent of her nannies and has gone from providing care for 42 families to just nine.

“No-one’s trying to make money here, we’re just trying to get care into homes,” Ms Morgan said.

She said agencies had largely cancelled care for their emergency worker clients and had to prioritise vulnerable families who were also eligible for government-subsidised IHC.

They include parents and children receiving chemotherapy and parents suffering severe medical and mental health issues.

“We essentially had to weigh up who needs to go to work or who’s going to lose their life,” Ms Morgan said.

Carrum Downs mother-of-four Chantelle Morrissey has post-natal depression and had been using the IHC service for eight months.

She has had her hours of care cut from about 50 hours a week to no more than five hours a week since the changes were announced.

She believes she has gone from having her mental health under control to reaching rock bottom.

“When I have help I can cope, but without it, it’s an incredible struggle,” Ms Morrissey said.

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She said hundreds of families like hers would be at risk now their help had been withdrawn.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do if they can’t fix this,” she said.

Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan did not answer questions directly about the IHC sector but said the new childcare system ensured families could still access child care while also ensuring the viability of services.

“Eligible services can also receive small business payments such as the boost to employer cashflow measure — potentially receiving between $20,000 and $100,000 to help with wage costs,” he said.

Some family day care centres and traditional childcare centres have also been heavily affected by the Government’s package to save childcare centres.

*Surnames withheld

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