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Staff Shortages Due To Mandatory COVID Vaccinations In Child Care

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Staff Shortages Due To Mandatory COVID Vaccinations In Child Care

As per the current PHO, all Educators are mandatorily required to be fully vaccinated. This will be repealed by the NSW Government on 13 May 2022.  However, there are many workers who either do not wish to take the vaccinations or are unable to, for medical reasons. The cumulative numbers of non-vaccinated Educators have significantly hit the sector which had been dealing with staff shortages even before the pandemic. The following details the impact of the vaccine mandate in the early childhood sector. 

Vaccine Mandate Impact

As early as September 2021, Goodstart Early Learning made coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for all employees nationwide, making the childcare giant the first in the sector to mandate the vaccine. It outlined a program to get all its 15,000 employees in every state and territory fully vaccinated by November 29 2021.

In the aftermath of the vaccine mandates, a survey of operators in states with mandates found that small stand-alone and community-run centres were hardest hit, according to peak group Community Early Learning Australia(CELA). The organisation's survey of more than a hundred centres in NSW showed two-thirds had experienced staffing problems because of the mandate. In fact, when the state’s cut-off for vaccinations happened on November 8, as many as two hundred staff were unable to attend work because of their vaccination status.

Of the 176 services who responded, 60 per cent of those located in metropolitan areas reported that mandatory vaccination had impacted staffing and 52.5 per cent reported that they had staff vacancies. 

In major regional towns, 61.9 per cent reported mandatory vaccination had impacted staffing, and 56.4 per cent had staff vacancies. 

In rural and remote communities, 68.2 per cent reported that mandatory vaccination had impacted staffing, and 58.1 per cent reported having staff vacancies. 

This data confirms other research indicating that staff shortages are more acute in services outside of metropolitan areas, compounding disadvantages for children and families the further from the city they live1.

The CELA study also found that services were managing the shortages by: 

  • Trying to recruit new staff (61%) — is time-consuming and costly 
  • Engaging casual staff (58%) 
  • Combining rooms or groups of children (28%) 
  • Reducing the ratio of staff to children (21%) 
  • Reducing the number of children able to attend the service (19%), meaning parents aren’t able to work as education and care is not available

Of the one-third of respondents who reported that mandatory vaccination had not impacted their staffing, 27 per cent reported having staff vacancies. Such findings of workforce shortages even in services without vaccine-hesitant educators underline larger staffing issues plaguing the sector as a whole that emerged from CELA’s joint report with ELAA and CCC, “Investing in our Future: growing our education and care workforce”.

Government vaccine mandates do offer some accommodations to industries with acute staff shortages. For example, the Queensland government website on vaccine requirements says that “if you are managing a setting where only vaccinated people may work, and are experiencing critical workforce shortages, you can permit a worker who is unvaccinated to enter, work in, or provide services in the facility for a short time period, up to a month, if:

  • you’ve assessed the risk to other staff and other people accessing the setting
  • you reasonably believe it is necessary to respond to a critical workforce shortage
  • personal protective equipment is used by the worker in compliance with the PPE guideline and any COVID safe plans for the setting
  • a negative COVID-19 test result is provided by the unvaccinated worker before their commencing next work shift and every second day after. The worker must provide a negative test result as soon as practically possible
  • if a Rapid Antigen Test (RAT) is used, the test must be taken and a negative result received before starting their shift on a day a COVID-19 test is required. If a PCR test is used, it can be provided on a rolling basis when the results are received.”

Such provisions might allow childcare services some time to recruit or make alternative arrangements to ensure there are enough vaccinated workers to avoid ongoing worker shortages.

However such provisions are unlikely to help much in the long run, since industry insiders point out that “even a 5 per cent drop in staff could leave centres short-staffed because the federal government had legislated staff-to-child ratios in all centres.”

The major consequences such staff shortage will have are:

  • The sharp reduction in the number of places available for early education and care in turn will lead to a longer waiting list for families looking to place their children in childcare services.
  • Higher staffing costs fuelled by higher demand for qualified staff 

Childcare centre operators from around the country believe that such consequences will lead to fee hikes at some centres as mandates for COVID-19 vaccinations around the country force them to terminate staff and put others on leave. Ultimately the trickle-down effect will be felt by families who may have to shell out more for higher childcare fees while mothers may find it difficult to rejoin the workforce after COVID imposed restrictions.

In fact, Australia is not alone in grappling with these challenges as according to new estimates, more than 1 million women aged 25 to 54 that left the labour force during the onset of the COVID recession still hadn’t returned by December 2021, partly because of the lack of affordable care.

Back in Australia, for childcare workers' unions too, the vaccine mandate has posed a challenge since they have to decide whether to represent those workers who chose not to get vaccinated. Some though like the United Workers Union, which represents some childcare sector workers, have clearly sided with the vaccine mandate. Even then, they have pointed out chaotic vaccination arrangements, impractical logistics, changing rules and lack of awareness building among educators as areas where governments should have worked upon.

In line with the broader community settings, organisations may choose to move to a risk-based assessment approach for the workforce after this time, meaning that services may choose to implement policies around vaccination.

Until 13 May, all early childhood education and care educators and staff under the current Public Health OrderExternal link must have received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccination. This includes all:

  • staff working on site.
  • volunteers working on site.
  • contractors, maintenance staff, cleaners and all other workers who are on site.

Any staff members who have not received mandated COVID-19 vaccinations and are unable to obtain a medical contraindication certificate from their doctor are not able to attend early childhood educational settings.

If the employee gives a legitimate reason for not being vaccinated, the employee and their employer should discuss whether there are any other options available instead of vaccination. This could include alternative work arrangements, such as asking the employee to perform different duties or to work from home.

Mandatory Vaccinations Rules

In 2021, the federal government mandated vaccinations for aged care workers, disability workers and those that are working in high-risk situations in the health system. Eventually, most states and territories imposed broader mandates extending to early childcare workers, including the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia (of February 2022).

Under the mandatory vaccination rules, all childcare workers must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 which means having received two doses of an approved COVID-19 vaccine. In fact, some states like Victoria require all education staff to receive a third dose of the COVID-9 vaccine in order to be onsite in an education setting. Any one of the following three ways may be used to show proof of vaccinations:

  • their COVID-19 digital certificate which shows proof of only your COVID-19 vaccinations that can be added to a digital wallet
  • their immunisation history statement which shows their COVID-19 vaccinations and all other vaccinations
  • their International COVID-19 Vaccination Certificate which shows proof of only their COVID-19 vaccinations when they want to travel overseas.

If a childcare worker is unable to be vaccinated for COVID-19 due to a medical contraindication, or because they are participating in a COVID-19 vaccine trial, they will need to provide evidence of this to your employer.

For this, they will need a medical certificate from a registered medical practitioner stating the medical contraindication, or confirming they are participating in Phase 3 or Phase 4 clinical trial for the COVID-19 vaccine and have received at least one active dose. As soon as practical after their participation in the trial ends, they must notify your employer. If their medical contraindication is temporary, their medical certificate will also need to state the time period it applies for, and they will need a new medical certificate if their contraindication continues beyond that date. 

The Way Ahead

In order to offset staff shortage and avoid potential fee hikes, childcare providers have been asking for government assistance for example in the form of retention payments so that they can keep the staff who are already in the services. Other ways of government assistance can include incentive payments to enrol in and complete a qualification and stay in a position, particularly in hard to staff areas as well as improvements to conditions to ensure no financial punishment for getting tested and isolated. Among other measures advocated by CELA is the reduction of the cost of qualifications, and improved conditions for educators impacted by positive COVID-19 cases in the immediate term.  

In the long term, policy reform might be a more effective way to address the staffing challenges of the sector. The Centre for Policy Development for instance has asked the government to use the childcare crisis as an opportunity for initiating major reforms. It has been proposed that governments commit to a universal entitlement of 30 hours a week, or three days a week, of free or low-cost early learning for all children. It would begin with 30 hours of child care and progress to 30 hours of preschool for the first two years before formal schooling. Though such an initiative would in turn require massive staff hiring, a clear, supportive government policy is being seen as one of the surest ways to make early childhood education and care one of the most rewarding, secure career options.

Further Reading

Poor Job Security and Conditions A Major Factor In Childcare Staffing Crisis - With staff shortages, a growing concern in the early childhood industry, the Carmicheal Centre from the Australia Institute have developed a detailed report with 10 recommendations to overcome the current shortages the industry face. Some recommendations include: Prioritising ECE as an essential public service, providing universal ECEC to all Australian preschool-aged children, conversion of casual, contract-based, and temporary staff to permanent and direct employment, Lifting minimum qualification standards for new ECEC workforce entrants, and TAFE should be the primary provider of foundational education and training for ECEC careers.

Early Childhood Services Suffering From Shortage Of Staff - Early Education Service providers are suffering from an ample shortage of childcare staff. It has been said that there are more than 6000 job vacancies across the country as of March (2022).

Early Childhood Educators Across NSW To Be Fully Vaccinated By 8 November 2021 - The NSW Department of Education has recently updated their COVID -19 guidelines and educators who live or work in the LGA's of concern must have their second dose of vaccination by 8 November.

Goodstart Early Learning Makes COVID Vaccinations Mandatory For All Employees Nationwide - On Monday 27th September 2021, Chief executive officer Julia Davison of Goodstart Early Learning, announced that all employees throughout Australia will need to be fully vaccinated against COVID, by 29 November.

References:
Childcare Worker Problems After COVOD Vaccination Mandates, ABC Australia 
Vaccinations Requirments For Workers, QLD Government
Impact Of Mandatory Vaccinations, CELA
COVID -19 Vaccinations, Fair Work Ombudsman 

Last modified on Tuesday, May 10, 2022
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