Why pay for childcare you don’t use, like on public holidays?

By consumer affairs reporter Amy Bainbridge.

It’s a pet peeve of many parents with children in day care —getting slugged on public holidays when childcare centres shut their doors. So what’s really going on and is the practice fair?

Not according to some parents.

“I think it’s outrageous! My centre charges us, yet my husband and (I) both work casually, so we don’t get paid but have to fork out for childcare we’re not using,” mum Nirelle said.

Mum Rachel, who works as a nurse, agreed. “As a nurse I often am required to work public holidays,” she said.

“I’m also a single parent so I’m paying for child care that I’m not using and having to find alternative arrangements for my son, the system is a bit unfair but we pay for it because we need it.”

“Not happy, we just do it,” said another mum Alison. “If the centre was as good in all the other ways, I would definitely move them to avoid paying for [public holidays].”

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Another mum told the ABC: “So painful. The day care charges full rates. Kids didn’t attend during school holidays as sisters are at home. Centre was closed, we paid full rates. Sigh.”

It’s just another hit for working parents

Paying for services parents can’t use is another hit in a system that’s already seen by many as unaffordable.

A government report released earlier this month showed a sharp decline in affordability of child care for low- to middle-income families, according to analysis by Early Childhood Australia (ECA).

Compared with last year, families earning $35,000 per year are paying nearly 20 per cent more in out-of-pocket expenses (as a proportion of their weekly income, after subsidies are factored in) while families on $135,000 per year or more are paying just 5-7 per cent more.

What are parents doing about it?

If they have a choice, some parents steer clear of booking a childcare place on Mondays or Fridays to avoid days which have the most frequent public holidays.

One mother who spoke to the ABC said she’d changed her work days to avoid having child care on a Monday.

“I have been paying for public holidays but don’t mind if the staff do get paid, it has meant though that I’ve changed my work days this year away from a Monday as I don’t get paid for public holidays, and can’t afford to pay for around a week per year of child care I can’t use, and don’t get paid on those days,” she said.

Other parents believe it’s fair enough for centres for charge.

“We pay with no make up days offered,” mum Aimee said. “I don’t mind if it means my daughter’s educators get paid what they deserve.”

So why do centres do it?

Paul Mondo from the Australian Childcare Alliance, which represents private providers, told the ABC it’s up to individual operators to decide whether they’ll charge for public holidays.

“Predominantly staff are permanently employed and rent is a fixed cost on a monthly basis, therefore the cost for delivering that remain the same whether the service is open or not,” he said.

The Government’s My Child website said many childcare and early learning services charge for public holidays “because childcare workers, like most employees, are entitled to be paid for public holidays when they would otherwise be at work” and “charging practices are commercial decisions made by childcare service providers and the Government has no legal capacity to intervene in these decisions”.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) told the ABC charging for public holidays was not an issue because the costs were disclosed to parents before they signed up.

So does the industry’s reason stand up?

You be the judge. Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics supplied to the ABC show there are many casual employees in the industry.

In November 2016, just under 147,000 people were employees with paid entitlements in the childcare industry.

The number of people without paid entitlements, or casual staff, was just under 90,000.

For early childhood teachers, there were 65,655 people employed with entitlements, and casual staff accounted for 19,905 people working in the industry.

However, Mr Mondo from the Australian Childcare Alliance said most centres had 80 to 90 per cent of staff on permanently.

“In a long day care setting my experience is there’s not a third of staff who are casual at any centre at any given time, it’s more like 10 per cent,” he said.

He said after school-care providers, which could be grouped into statistics on child care, would be far more likely to employ high numbers of casual staff.

It’s not all bad news

A growing shift to ease the load on parents and respond to competitive pressures is creating a patchwork of arrangements across Australia.

It means new arrangements are sprouting up for parents hit by public holiday fees.

Mr Mondo said some centres were offering alternative arrangements to suit the needs of their community.

“More and more we’re finding there are suburbs around Australia where supply is exceeding demand which means that service providers do respond to their own circumstances and the needs of that community and can be a little bit more flexible in their arrangements,” he said.

Melbourne mother Erin said her centre now allowed parents to schedule a “make-up day” to take at another time during the year.

“(And) if you are full time the public holiday is charged at half rate rather than getting the makeup day,” she said.

Mum Eva said her centre charges for public holidays, but offers a day in lieu for $1.

“Just received my statement however, and I’ve been charged full rate for the day in lieu. Currently trying to sort it out *banging head against desk*.”

More centres are hoped to improve affordability

The Australian Childcare Alliance said there were more than 1,000 applications for new childcare centres across Australia.

Mr Mondo said that would increase competition, particularly in city areas where there were long waiting lists for places.

“Maybe not all of those will get over the line and get built, but certainly there will be a growth in services,” he said.

“I think certainly competition forces any service to assess how they operate, and those (public holiday) arrangements would definitely form part of that.”

This post originally appeared on ABC News.


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