The Andrews government clarified its advice on childcare restrictions on Friday evening, after families scrambled for two days to decipher tough new coronavirus rules that they feared would cut off most people's access to care.
As desperate families sought answers on Thursday, some were told both parents needed to be permitted workers in order to be eligible for childcare. However, on Friday the government said households with one permitted worker could now access childcare if there was nobody else at home who could look after their child.
"This may be for a range of reasons including: the other parent could be a full-time student, have a disability, or be working from home such that they cannot supervise the child, or there may be no other adults in the household," a government spokeswoman said.
The same rule will apply to pre-existing babysitting and in-home care arrangements. The government has advised that grandparents and elderly people should not provide care for young children but confirmed it is not against the rules.
The latest change in guidelines follows two days of confusion, where some parents were accused of exploiting the permit scheme, while carers said they feared for their livelihoods due to centre staffing cutbacks.
Community Child Care Association executive director Julie Price said that while most families were doing the right thing, some were bending the rules, which centres had limited capacity to police.
CHILDCARE: WHAT IS ALLOWED
- Only children of permitted workers, who cannot be supervised at home, and those who are vulnerable can access childcare in Melbourne for the next six weeks.
- Permitted workers include nurses, emergency services, some retail staff, meat workers, media and construction workers. Full list here.
- Permitted workers can only put their children in care if no other adult is present in the home who can supervise them.
- Babysitting – paid or unpaid – is allowed for permitted workers, if it’s a continuation of an existing arrangement.
- Grandparents are discouraged from babysitting because they are in a vulnerable category, although this is not prohibited.
- Permitted workers can drop their child at a family member’s home for care, if it is a pre-existing arrangement.
"Some of our members are being guilted into taking children because families are feeling they can’t look after children at home," she said.
Ms Price said one parent claimed they were a permitted worker because they were a digital designer for an optometry service. Optometry is considered a permitted industry.
"Self-employed people are filling in the permit forms for themselves and a partner," she said.
Meanwhile, childcare educator Amanda, who did not want to give her last name, had her weekly work hours cut from 40 to 20. At a number of centres in Melbourne, staff had been stood down without pay.
"I'm really worried. It's a hell of a lot less than I need to live with paying the bills," Amanda said.
"Guaranteed employment is great but I would like to see guaranteed income."
The new rules, introduced to combat the state's second wave of coronavirus, mean only children of permitted workers and those who are vulnerable can access childcare in Melbourne for the next six weeks.
Early Learning Association Australia chief executive David Worland said parents were putting pressure on some centres to accept their children when their permitted worker status was unclear.
Parents were critical of the Health Department's implementation of the scheme. The government took until Wednesday evening to release the permission form parents needed to gain access to care, while a detailed list of those considered "permitted workers" went live about midnight.
One mother, who did not want to be named, said she believed about half the children in her son’s childcare room should not be there.
"Parents with private businesses are taking advantage of the definitions and making misleading statements about their permitted worker status and employers are making misleading statements," she said.
"People are gaming the system, it seems you just need to sign a form and you have a permit."
Premier Daniel Andrews on Friday condemned such behaviour.
"The permits are very important to make sure that people are doing the right thing and that we're not putting staff in really difficult, difficult circumstances where they've got to be interrogating people," he said.
"If there's anyone out there trying to potentially undermine that, then they're very, very bad choices."
Mr Andrews said he did not want to waste police time on permit breaches.
The federal government injected an extra $33 million into the Victorian childcare sector on Wednesday, to cover the cost of lost fees as parents are forced to keep their children home.
But Helen Gibbons, director of early education for United Workers Union, said it's not enough to protect educators. JobKeeper was stopped for childcare workers on July 20.
"If a centre only requires a quarter of its workforce, what happens to the rest of its workforce? There is no safety net for those workers," she said.
"Centres are legally obliged not to make them redundant in order to get the transition payment but they can always stand them down on no pay; that's what we're concerned about."
Ms Gibbons said the federal Education Minister Dan Tehan's announcement had been met with anger and heartbreak throughout the sector.
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