Early childhood centres continue with 'illegal' lockdown pay and leave practices

RNZ
Over 1000 schools and early education centres have tapped into government support for children struggling to attend or learn because of the pandemic (Video first published October 2020).

Early childhood education providers are continuing to cut teachers’ pay and illegally forcing them to use their leave during lockdowns.

In one case, centres told teachers their contracts could be terminated, if lockdowns continued.

New ECE staff survey results provided to Stuff by NZEI Te Riu Roa union show these practices continue, despite repeated interventions from the union, lawyers and the Government throughout the past 18 months.

The Government has continued to fund centres at their usual rates, regardless of restrictions. Many centres have also claimed millions in wage subsidies.

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* Early childhood business Evolve Education drops unlawful contracts

While most private early learning providers had supported staff and paid them their normal wage throughout the pandemic, some had illegally forced staff to use annual leave, or cut pay.
Kelly Hodel/Stuff
While most private early learning providers had supported staff and paid them their normal wage throughout the pandemic, some had illegally forced staff to use annual leave, or cut pay.

While some centres have engaged in illegal or unethical practices, a separate survey of members by industry group Early Childhood Council found the majority of their members continued to pay staff their full wages throughout the pandemic.

Teachers who spoke to Stuff said some centres put profits before staff and children, adding that this has been exacerbated by the financial strain of the pandemic.

As Auckland centres take on more children, some fear higher occupancy rates – and the fees that come with that – will be put ahead of kaiako and tamariki safety.

Those working in the sector say issues with ECE centres had been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Fiona Goodall/Getty-Images
Those working in the sector say issues with ECE centres had been exacerbated by the pandemic.

The NZEI survey of 340 teachers shows some private ECE providers are cutting staff pay under level 2, 3 and 4 restrictions. Some are also forcing their staff to take annual leave, or reduce their hours.

Under level 3 restrictions, 20 per cent of respondents had their pay cut to 80 per cent, and 13 per cent had their pay reduced to less than 80 per cent of their regular wage.

In level 4, about 20 per cent of respondents had their pay cut to 80 per cent, and 7 per cent said they were getting less than 80 per cent of their usual pay.

Even under level 2, two people said they were receiving 80 per cent of their pay, and two more who were getting less than 80 per cent.

On top of that, 15 per cent said they were forced to use annual leave, a move that’s inconsistent with the Holidays Act.

Those who spoke to Stuff asked not to be named because they feared for their jobs. They said they felt undervalued, unappreciated, and that centres were more concerned with profits than the safety of children.

One person said their pay was cut without consultation, because their employer was unable to access the wage subsidy. When they checked the government website, they saw their employer had received the subsidy.

Another said they felt forced to take annual leave, without proper consultation.

Others said they felt well-supported by their employers, who communicated clearly throughout the pandemic.

In August, Kindercare – the country’s fourth largest ECE provider, with almost 1200 employees – sent a staff memo saying everyone would have to use annual leave, while also working 50 per cent during future lockdowns.

Kindercare also suggested it could terminate employees’ contracts and pay due to lockdown.

It referred to a contractual clause that said Kindercare had the power to suspend employment agreements and stop all pay in circumstances “beyond employer’s contemplation”.

Like all ECE services, Kindercare continued to receive its normal government funding throughout lockdown.

In 2020, the provider received $6.76 million in wage subsidies, and in 2021 it received $1.3m.

Following a letter from staff, and intervention from NZEI, Kindercare retracted its memorandum and apologised.

Last year, Evolve Education was also forced to withdraw a staff proposal that lawyers said was unlawful.
SUPPLIED
Last year, Evolve Education was also forced to withdraw a staff proposal that lawyers said was unlawful.

One of the centre’s teachers said she was disappointed, but not surprised by the situation.

“At the end of the day, it’s not about the teachers, it’s not about the children, it’s about the bottom line.”

The teacher of 10 years said this had made a stressful time more stressful.

One teacher who had been working in ECE for two years said some staff did not know their rights, and were unsure of how to respond to the memo.

“It’s just another one of those things that makes me question why I’m working in ECE, if it’s such an undervalued job.”

Kindercare chief executive Kelly Wendelborn said the business withdrew the notice to utilise annual leave before it took effect, after seeking additional legal advice.

This situation demonstrated there was a lack of clarity in employment law, he said.

“The requirement for employees to take annual leave during a lockdown situation arising from a pandemic is a vexed issue.”

Wendelborn said the centre was proud of how the team had managed throughout the pandemic.

Kindercare had continued to pay all permanent team members full pay throughout this lockdown, due to government funding, and by having some centres open under level 2.

NZEI president Liam Rutherford says cutting pay and forcing staff to take annual leave is not acceptable.
ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff
NZEI president Liam Rutherford says cutting pay and forcing staff to take annual leave is not acceptable.

This comes a year after the country’s second-largest provider was forced to do a u-turn on a proposal to cut staff hours in half.

Evolve Education, a publicly listed company that owns 128 centres in New Zealand, offered full time staff a 20-hour contract, with a requirement to be on-call (unpaid) for a further 20 hours, in case they were needed.

After the union and the education minister stepped in, Evolve retracted the proposal. At the time, Evolve chief executive Tim Wong said the contract was only ever proposed as a voluntary option.

And at the beginning of the pandemic, the country’s largest ECE provider, Best Start, was criticised for claiming $25m in wage subsidies for its childcare chain, despite having millions in the bank.

Early Childhood Council acting chief executive Sue Kurtovich said instances of centres illegally forcing staff to use annual leave during lockdown were rare.

The council advised members normal employment law applied under Covid-19 restrictions.

A survey of the organisation’s 1350 members found 76 per cent paid staff 100 per cent of their regular pay during lockdown, despite 96 per cent suspending parent fees – a key income stream.

“As the Government provides a substantial part of their funding, I would absolutely expect employers not to abuse the system,” Chris Hipkins says.
ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff
“As the Government provides a substantial part of their funding, I would absolutely expect employers not to abuse the system,” Chris Hipkins says.

NZEI president Liam Rutherford said teachers felt “under-valued, not respected, and that their employers just see them as widgets or numbers”.

Throughout the pandemic, some providers had been fantastic, putting teacher and child wellbeing front and centre.

Others had behaved badly, by trying to illegally cut pay or compel teachers to use their annual leave, he said.

The minister responsible for both education and the Covid-19 response, Chris Hipkins, said the country’s more than 4000 independent early learning services were working hard to run their businesses in difficult times.

“But as the Government provides a substantial part of their funding, I would absolutely expect employers not to abuse the system,” he said.