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Early childhood educators 'barely able to survive' on wages as workers call for action

Ms Marsh says she is scraping by on her childcare worker wage. (Supplied: Sarah Marsh)

Sarah Marsh is considering leaving her role as an early childhood educator after 10 years in the industry. 

Not because she doesn't love the job or her workplace, but because of the pay.

"Once I've paid all the bills … there's nothing left at the end of it," Ms Marsh said.

She's forced to count every cent as the primary income in her household and even go to creative and drastic lengths to make ends meet.

"I've purchased a reusable coffee pod," she said.

"I ground coffee beans, fill up the pods and put that reusable coffee pod in the machine, to make my own coffee at home and at work.

Sarah Marsh makes her own coffees using a DIY refillable pod. (Supplied: Sarah Marsh)

"I figured it's cheaper to buy coffee beans than buy takeaway coffees."

Ms Marsh said she had resorted to asking family members for money to pay unexpected bills or expenses.

She said she also collected cans to recycle them for a little extra cash.

"It's really hard when you're counting every cent of your budget towards the household and you're just scraping by," she said.

The 27-year-old said she would love to start her own family.

But she said she couldn't afford it on her minimum wage and was considering finding better paid work.

"If you can find work that pays the same or better in an unqualified industry, then people are going to leave," she said.

"I shouldn't have to sacrifice my career in order to live."

Educators working in regional centres are leaving the industry due to low wages.  (ABC Central Victoria: Shannon Schubert)

Worse in the country

A group of Australian Universities researched how to support the early childhood sector as part of a national workforce strategy guide.

While demand for child care in regional Australia has increased, the industry has experienced high staff turnover.

Regional child care centres are routinely short-staffed and hiring to try and meet increasing demand for care.

Central Victorian childcare centres say they're looking for five full-time workers.  (ABC Central Victoria: Shannon Schubert)

University of Queensland child development, education and care researcher Karen Thorpe said she found 35 per cent of early childhood educators in metropolitan areas quit after 12 months.

While in remote locations, she said about 50 per cent left.

"We have people leaving, even though they have degrees, to go drive a truck, because you can earn $60,000 in early childhood and $100,000 as a truck driver," Professor Thorpe said.

She said high staff turnover impacted children's development.

"If children lose the attachment to their educator, it disrupts them emotionally and disrupts their learning," Professor Thorpe said.

"You've got an emotional environment and that's disrupted by turnover.

"Then you're damaging things like regulating behaviour."

Centres say they can't keep up with increasing demand and waitlist. (ABC Central Victoria: Shannon Schubert)

Economy will crumble, say educators

The United Workers Union has called on the federal government to fund a 25 per cent wage rise in this year's budget.

Union representative Helen Gibbons said the wage rise was needed to address a sector-wide worker crisis.

"You can earn as little as $24 an hour," she said.

"An educator told me the other day she works full time, she went to get a home loan and the bank told her she's living below the poverty line."

She said the low wages were forcing centres to cut back and creating chaos for families.

"Educators are barely able to survive on the wages they are paid amid soaring cost-of-living increases," Ms Gibbons said.

"As a result, turnover is going through the roof and workloads are unacceptably high."

Lisa Lansdown says the sector is at risk of crumbling.  (ABC Central Victoria: Shannon Schubert)

Bendigo educator Lisa Lansdown said the centre she worked at was not able to cater to increasing demand.

"We have families that want to put their children in an extra day because they're going back to work, and they need to work more," she said.

"But we're not able to accommodate their needs.

"We have tours coming through the door for children that haven't been born yet."

Ms Lansdown, who has worked in the industry for 10 years, said a pay rise wouldn't fix the childcare crisis.

But she said it would help retain and attract good educators to stay for longer.

"The sector is going to crumble if we don't get a pay rise," she said

"Our industry effects every other industry. I think its crunch time for the government now."

She described the federal government's childcare incentives, which come into effect on July 1, as an insult.

"It is great for families, but we need to fix the educator crisis in the sector," she said.

"If there's no educators here, we don't have a sector."

Industrial Relations Minister Tony Burke said the government wouldn't pre-empt the outcomes of any bargaining processes or applications. 

"This government understands the importance of getting wages moving – particularly in low-paid, female-dominated sectors, like early childhood education and care," Mr Burke said.

"That's exactly why we passed the Secure Jobs, Better Pay laws last year.

"The government believes it is important that parties, including unions and employers, use the pathways available under the Fair Work Act to pursue wage increases."

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