Big Fat Smile Waiving Gap Fees for Non-Attending Families During COVID-19 Outbreak
At Big Fat Smile, our focus is on meeting the needs of all children and families, particularly those within the communities in which we operate. We advocate strongly for our families when there are gaps in Government policy or current social or local issues. This advocacy is in line with our guiding vision to enrich the lives and minds of children and families in their communities. Since the commencement of the current COVID-19 outbreak across NSW resulting in lockdown orders, we have had a loud and robust voice advocating at both a State and Federal level for additional support and assistance for families accessing early education and care and out of school aged care services..
Issues, concerns and challenges can vary depending on each families current and prospective circumstances, as such we have argued for gap waivers.
The Government announced gap fee waivers for NON attending children. The announcement of the legal ability to waive gap fees (the difference between the fees charged by a service and the Child Care Subsidy (CCS) a family received) was warmly welcomed by the organisation. Big Fat Smile opted into this voluntary measure as soon as it was legislated (19th July 2021), absorbing the financial impact that this measure has on the organisation.
We are also advocating for:
- Increased allowable absences for children
We have heard parents concerns and share them regarding the impact that extended stay at home orders are having on their allowable absences. This concern becomes more critical and heightened the longer the lockdown is estimated to continue. We have called for additional absences to be provided to families so that they may feel confident in following stay at home orders, without the worry of running out prior to the end of the 2021/2022 financial year.
- A pause on the activity test
Families access to CCS is based on both parents working certain hours per fortnight. A pause on the activity test would ensure that if families reduced hours due to COVID-19, their access to CCS hours would continue, providing a safety net for families and their children to retain their current enrolment.
- Financial support for families through financial assistance (the financial hardship package
When family income drops suddenly, it is scary and worrying; families experiencing this may accessthe temporary financial hardship additional childcare subsidy. This subsidy increases the percentage of fee covered under CCS for families and provides direct and immediate relief to the cost of child care to families.
We also know that our Educators and their well-being is important to our children and families so we have:
- Argued for prioritisation of our Educators in the vaccine queue
Their safety and wellbeing is of paramount importance to us. Preserving their safety and wellbeing is critical.
- Celebrated and advocated for increasing the recognition of the amazing work our Educators do; continuing in one of the few face to face roles, educating and caring for children, often whilst their own children are attending school or an early education service.
As an Organisation, we have also argued for a business continuity package. The gap fee waiver results in a loss of up to 40% of our income per week. Government support to is critical to Big Fat Smile’s ongoing viability during this time.
The Gap Fee Waiver is of most interest to our families, however, there are some challenges and implications in its implementation.
- Firstly: the waiving of gap fees for NON-attending children is not a replication of ‘fee free care’ which was introduced during the 2020 lock-down; however it was advertised as such through the media. To clarify, this year, services will lose between $15-$70 per $100 of fees charged per child per day. On average, Big Fat Smile is losing 40% of the fee for each non-attending child.
- Secondly, the process to implement the wavier must be undertaken as a refund and therefore, the term ‘waiver’ is misleading. Services Australia does not confirm the ‘gap fee’ amount to be refunded until the absence has been charged and submitted. Up until this point, any ‘gap fee’is an estimate and likely to change.
- Finally, there is no support for families who do not have access to Child Care Subsidy. If services waive absent charges for these families the Organisation covers 100% of the total income lost .
In an attempt to address the concerns with implementation, Big Fat Smile has been liaising with software providers, service providers and members of State and Federal Government to determine a family-centric method of implementation. Unfortunately, across the board, we (and other providers) have been met with the same process; absences and attendances must be submitted to confirm Gap Fee allocation and then manually refund families through a crediting process.
Understandably this process has caused confusion, frustration and concern across the 3,000 families at Big Fat Smile (and undoubtedly across the sector) as statements are delivered and direct debits applied during a time where multiple media outlets are rejoicing with ‘free childcare’.
We continue to actively advocate for our affected families within the Greater Sydney Area on these issues and families and children across all of our services on an ongoing basis. This advocacy is conducted through the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) making direct representations to the Minister for Education (both State and Federal). We also engage with the Opposition to highlight critical concerns impacting families. Further, our CEO is Co-Chair of a sector peak body – The Early Learning and Care Council of Australia (ELACCA). ELACCA is a respected organisation in the early learning and care space, which advocates for families, children, and providers and is regularly called upon by the Government for consultation.
 The Child Care Subsidy was designed and legislated as a co-payment model, whereby the Government and family share the cost of child care. For parents not to pay, the Federal Minister must sign off on a ministerial ruling. The Government does not automatically compensate the provider for the loss of income.