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Childcare providers warn of reduced capacity and need for longterm financial support

Operators said additional staff will be needed to manage the extra Covid-19 health and safety requirements.

Image: Shutterstock

Updated Jun 23rd 2020, 4:45 PM

CHILDCARE PROVIDERS HAVE warned that some facilities may have to reduce capacity as they reopen from Monday and they will need longer-term financial support to continue operating. 

The Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response today heard from a number of representative bodies for the sector. 

Paula Donohoe, who runs two childcare services in Cavan, said the additional layer of Covid-19 health and safety requirements will be a further responsibility for staff and additional staff will be required. 

“Extra personnel will be required to manage arrival and departures, enhanced cleaning and additional administration,” she said.

 She said it is expected that there will be a reduction in demand this summer for these services, meaning operators will have enough staff to manage the additional workload that comes with the Covid-19 measures.

However she said “this assumes we can afford to pay for those additional staff” and that all staff will be in a position to return to work. She said some staff have their own childcare needs or have underlying health conditions. 

Donohoe said that while up to 85% of wages will be covered by the wage subsidy scheme, wages that are not covered by it – including any new hires required – will have to be paid from fees and subsidies. 

Teresa Heeney of Early Childhood Ireland (ECI) also told the committee that the need for a bespoke wage subsidy scheme for the sector and a reopening package for providers were “a tacit acceptance of the precariousness of the sector”.

“The issues of staff recruitment and retention and settings viability have not gone away and have been, if anything, exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis,” she said.

Heeney said the lack of clarity on how the sector will be funded beyond August, when a further 2,700 operators who usually close during the summer open back up, is causing anxiety. 

Marie Daly, CEO of the Crann Support Group said a recent survey of members indicated 98% will have some level of financially difficulty reopening while 79% are concerned about staff returning.

She said staff are worried about implications for their own health and that of their families and there are also concerns about access to testing and cross contamination. 

The committee also heard from Marian Quinn of the Association of Childcare Professionals who said it is “impossible to tell” what kind of capacity will be available on Monday. 

She said there are some providers who have said they will not be able to re-open.

“We’ve had providers who, on discussions with their parents will be opening at maybe 60 or 70% capacity. Again it depends on where they are and who the cohort of parents they have are.”

She pointed out that only 1,800 services are generally open during the summer, and “the slack is generally taken up” by either summer camps or by grandparents – something that is not an option for many this summer. 

There’s so many unknowns until services open up in terms of what the demand will be. People will know from the engagements with their current families, but in terms of the other essential workers who are out there who have been reliant on families or summer camps, we won’t know what their demand will be until services are open. 

Essential workers

Earlier, the committee heard from the Irish Nurses and Midwives’ Organisation about childcare challenges for healthcare workers. 

A survey conducted by the INMO found a majority of members are using up their annual leave to care for their children during the Covid-19 crisis. 

The survey also found that the majority of those who are using paid childcare are paying over €100 a week above the usual amount so that they can attend work.

Over 1,800 INMO members with childcare needs responded to the union’s survey, which found:

  • 62% have taken annual leave to care for children,
  • 22% are using paid childminders while at work,
  • 10% are using grandparents to care for children,
  • 69% did not have a partner available to provide childcare – often because they are a single parent, or their partner is another essential worker.

One nurse who responded to the survey, whose husband is also a nurse said they found it “extremely stressful” trying to organise childcare. They ended up having to rely on the children’s grandparents. 

“I work as public health nurse in busy rural area. I cancelled my parental leave to work full time to provide care to all my patients as usual. I felt my role as PHN was perceived as more important than my role as mother,” another respondent said. 

One respondent said they felt the lack of assistance in relation to safe childcare during the pandemic “caused increased stress to both myself and my family”.

I count myself lucky that I was able to find a person willing to take the risk of coming to my house to mind my children. This took a while to sort and it caused some anxiety for my kids, who were already worried about me working in the Emergency Department and caring for Covid patients.

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Another community nurse whose husband is a garda said she does not want to hear the government thanking healthcare workers or “calling us heroes”. The couple have three school-age children. 

Sh said the government has “neglected this huge issue we need help now with childcare now – financial assistance specifically”.

This is not going to change in the next coming months. The problem will remain if the schools only open part-time. This issue has been handled disgracefully.

When asked what form they would like childcare assistance to take in the coming months, the most popular solution among respondents was to allow parents to source their own childcare and be reimbursed by the employer.

‘They feel abandoned’

The INMO called on the Oireachtas committee to recommend a range of measures, including:

  • Reimbursement of any additional childcare costs incurred during Covid-19;
  • Compensation for annual leave used to care for children;
  • A scheme to pay healthcare workers for any childcare they source themselves;
  • Priority access for nurses and midwives in access to preschools, creches, and childminding;
  • Reopening of schools to facilitate children of essential workers.

INMO General Secretary, Phil Ní Sheaghdha said when the applause for frontline healthcare workers dies down, “many will be left our of pocket and without any leave”. 

“Our members say they feel abandoned. We have long sought a solution to the childcare problem facing our members,” she said.

“They want to do their jobs, while also knowing that their children are being looked after. This is not an unreasonable demand.

“Nobody doubts that childcare in a pandemic is a difficult issue, but so far that difficulty has landed on those who are taking the greatest risks during the pandemic.

“One in ten COVID cases in this country are nurses. We must support them better.” 

  • 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>

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