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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 3°C

Childcare crisis: 'I looked at my 14-year-old and asked 'Will you manage babysitting the others?''

Childcare providers won’t be returning until 29 June – and even when they do return, it isn’t clear how many children they can take in.

PARENTS AND ADVOCACY GROUPS have been critical of the government’s plan to announce Ireland’s “accelerated” roadmap to reopening businesses without having any childcare provision for working parents.

The National Women’s Council has said that “we’ve seen during the crisis what an essential public service childcare is”, but said that it’s also “one that’s being ignored”.

“There’s an expectation that women will be at home to do this,” the council said, adding “we’re absolutely in a childcare crisis, and the government has to step in”.

Richard Grogan, an employment law solicitor, said that “childcare is a massive issue, and is an elephant in the room”.

One nurse told that she and her husband, who is also a healthcare worker, one day tried leaving their teenager to babysit their three other children while they went to work, but she had to go back home from the stress of worrying what might happen.

  • Our colleagues at Noteworthy are proposing to investigate how a new childcare system can be built in post-pandemic Ireland. See how you can support this project here>

She has suggested using some of the now-empty onsite facilities at hospitals as a daycare centre for the children of healthcare workers.

The failed strategy for childcare during Covid-19

Initially, the government had planned to provide childcare for healthcare workers, who were at the frontline in tackling the most seriously ill patients of the Covid-19 pandemic.

On 25 March, the government announced a deal that would mean parents wouldn’t need to keep paying their childcare fees to secure a place for their children.

A plan was announced to give annual leave to public servants who were the partners of healthcare workers, in order for them to mind the children at home. 

A month ago, a more detailed plan was announced where parents would pay €90 per week for a childcare worker to look after children in the home, but the majority of the cost will be paid by the State.

Both these plans were later abandoned, after insurers said childcare providers wouldn’t be covered for this work, and after just six providers applied to take part in the new scheme.

Now, the government has announced that childcare providers can open again on 29 June as part of Phase Three; but it’s not yet clear what capacity these childcare providers will have when social distancing rules still apply.

While there are 4,500 early learning and care and school-age childcare services in the country, fewer than 2,000 of these normally remain open in July and August.

Health Minister Simon Harris has asked people to rely on family and friends for a “dig out” until creches reopen.

And failing that, if workers are called back to work in one of the many businesses that have reopened as part of Phase Two, they may have to refuse to go to work if they don’t have someone to mind their children.

A nurse put out of work for 10 weeks

I looked at the 14 year old and asked ‘Will you manage with us ringing in?’ and by 12 o’clock, I had to come home because I was stressed out in case anything happened.

Nora, a respiratory nurse working in the Covid-19 unit has four children aged 14, 11, eight, and six. She says that she was “completely caught” over the childcare issue. 

An Italian student had been minding their children, but she had to go home as the Covid-19 pandemic crisis unfolded. Then Nora’s mother had to cocoon, meaning another child-minding option was gone.

She tried contacting a list of childcare workers, but none could provide care.

Other friends of hers said they had childcare at the start of the crisis, but later were told “they didn’t want to work for the nurses, they didn’t want to take that risk”.

Nora is back to work now, but only because her mother, a retired nurse, has stopped cocooning and is now living with them to provide childcare. But her mother can’t keep doing this forever, she stresses; Nora leaves at 6.40am and isn’t back home until 6pm.

In total, she was out of work for 10 weeks because of a lack of childcare options. Some of her colleagues are still not able to return to work because they need to look after their children. She says the problem is “huge”:

I [know] one person who’s paying over €100 a day in childcare for one child – that’s not sustainable. Even at that, she’s paying it when she should herself be cocooning, because she has a respiratory illness. But she took the loan out and now can’t stay home because she needs to pay back the loan.

Questions over the Wage Subsidy support

Speaking on RTÉ Radio One yesterday, Minister for Social Protection and Employment Affairs Regina Doherty said that “until your arrangements are back up and running the State will continue to support you financially until your income can be provided for by yourself or your employer”.

Until their informal or their formal childcare arrangements can resume on 29 June, the State will continue to support their income with the Pandemic Payment or the Wage Subsidy Scheme.

But employment law solicitor Richard Grogan told says that the TWSS “technically doesn’t apply” in this scenario. 

“It doesn’t say ‘Oh, by the way, if I can’t come back to work because I’ve got a childcare problem that I can continue on these’, or that the employer has to continue on them.”

“What the Minister did was fudge the question.”

“Because the answer is, ‘I’ve called you back to work’. If they were laid off and were on the Pandemic Unemployment Payment, they’re being called back to work [now].”

No longer relying on grandparents

“I don’t believe that we’re going to have anything like the childcare [capacity], on 29 June, that we had,” Grogan continues.

The traditional alternate Irish solution to an Irish problem – being the grandparents collecting the child from school or minding the child – is now very questionable. If we get a spike of any kind, the first ones going into lockdown will be the grandparents.

O’Connor makes a similar point: “The fallback position previously has been to rely on grandparents, who are not in this situation. So what it’s doing really is highlighting so clearly the failure of the government to have a proper public childcare system in place that’s accessible to all and that’s affordable.

The old provisions of using other members of the family to step in are not there, nor should they be. I’ve had women talking to me over the weekend asking me “What are we going to do? Do I go back and work in the shop?”
I think there is a real danger in terms of long-term unemployment for women, because the situation right now is almost saying to women: ‘Look, don’t come back’.

Future dismissals

Grogan says that it’s unlikely that employees will be dismissed between now and 29 June. But after that, and as time goes on, there will be more pressure on employers to say “either you’re coming back or you’re not coming back”.

He adds that if the primary schools don’t return in September, it could result in a lot of parents being made redundant or dismissed.

From 29 June, you’re going to have employers saying ‘Look, I need you back’, and they’re going to say ‘Well I can’t go back’. And that’s when an employer says, ‘Well, I’m now going into a redundancy situation’. 

“There’s going to be a lot of pressure points for people with children.”

To combat this, he says the government should help businesses to send office equipment to employees who can work from home, which is a major obstacle for businesses.

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