Child care isn’t accessible for many shift workers due to lack of extended-hours centres


Morgan Sutton loves working in the construction industry as a qualified electrician and project manager.

Her position usually requires her to be on building sites by 6:30am for the daily “toolbox talk” – a safety meeting for all workers on location.

But a lack of flexible child care in Canberra means the mother-of-two is simply unable to arrive on time, and she is now reconsidering her future in the industry.

“Females in construction, we face so many challenges as it is, but I don’t want to be treated differently and get special treatment because I am a mother and I can’t be there at 6:30am.

“I don’t think that’s fair on my other colleagues who are either women who don’t have children or men who are able to be there at 6:30am.”

Woman strapping child into car seat.
Morgan Sutton can’t drop her daughter off at child care until 7:30am, though she ideally needs to be at work by 6:30am.(ABC News: Michael Barnett)

Ms Sutton says the only Canberra childcare centre she has been able to access does not open until 7:30am.

And she says her research has only uncovered one centre that opens before 6:30am — based near the Canberra Hospital to support medical professionals and with a very long waitlist.

Ms Sutton says she is lucky she works for her family’s business – her father is her boss — so she is able to negotiate flexible start times around childcare arrangements.

But she says there are hundreds of other parents who are not so fortunate.

“It’s not just in the construction industry, we’re looking at any shift work — your medical professionals, your emergency services, … a lot of retail workers, hospitality workers — they don’t have access to the child care that they need,” she said.

Woman wearing orange shirt with two children.
Ms Sutton with her two children Millie, 4, and Dale, 6.(ABC News: Michael Barnett)

‘We can’t be open 24 hours a day’

Ms Sutton would like to see government childcare subsidies expanded to cover more hours in the day, something she hoped would encourage centres to open longer.

But the childcare sector is in the midst of a workforce crisis, with educator vacancy rates at record highs.

Two women with a number of children. Two of the children are riding tricycles.
COVID-19 has exacerbated staffing shortages in the childcare sector.(ABC News: Andrew Kennedy)

Lee Maiden from Communities at Work, which runs 12 childcare centres in Canberra, says the organisation simply did not have the capacity to open longer than the current 10.5 hours per day.

“If we did, and we had to pay educators those long hours or working late at night, the cost of child care would just skyrocket.”

Ms Maiden says families requiring greater childcare flexibility should consider family day care.

“Some do weekends, some do overnight, and it’s an affordable, flexible arrangement because you pay hourly with family day care, you’re not paying a full day’s fees,” she said.

Woman with blonde hair and wearing black jacket.
Lee Maiden says childcare centres don’t have the capacity to expand their opening hours.(ABC News: Andrew Kennedy)

Ms Maiden says more onus should also be put on employers to offer flexible working hours.

Childcare accessibility a nationwide problem

Mitchell Institute education policy fellow Hannah Matthews says child care for outside standard hours is a problem the sector as a whole is not tackling, most likely because there is already a shortage of standard places across much of Australia.

She says staff shortages are not the only reasons why a centre’s hours of operation are inflexible. 

A woman smiles at the camera
Hannah Matthews says there is a strong link between access to child care and poor childhood development.(Supplied: Mitchell Institute)

“Within early childhood education and care, we look at a high level of privatisation in this sector,” she said. 

“So, you may not be able to get into the childcare centre that you would like your child to go to, it may not match the hours of operation that you need, particularly if you work shift work or non-standard hours.”

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