Childcare companies warn that they may have to raise fees to cover wage costs which have soared above $45 an hour for relief teachers in Auckland, as a desperate teacher shortage bites.
Four early childhood sector groups have asked for an urgent meeting with Education Minister Chris Hipkins to ask for extra money to cover their rising costs, and say that if they don't get it they will have to raise fees for parents.
Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds said centres were being forced to pay $45 to $49 an hour to get relief teachers - way over the top of the normal pay scale for early childhood teachers with degrees, which is $67,302 a year or $32 an hour.
Katy Brown of The Learning Centre in Ellerslie said last year that she was paying qualified teachers $24 to $28 an hour, and was being forced to pay more.
But centres are bracing for even bigger pay demands flowing on from talks this week over pay for kindergarten teachers. Their union, the NZ Educational Institute, is seeking an 11 per cent pay rise over three years to catch up with primary teachers' pay increases that took effect from July 1.
"For parents, all they see at some point is that their costs have increased," Reynolds warned.
"It's very rarely by choice, it's more by necessity."
Unlike public schools and kindergartens, most childcare centres operate in a free market where the wages are set by supply and demand - and right now the shortage of supply of teachers means they can set their own terms.
"At the moment in Auckland, if you want to have a reliever, you are paying $45 to $49 an hour, and the reliever will come and say, 'I'm not going to do any paperwork'," Reynolds said.
"The paperwork will still have to be done, so someone else has to do it, but we are being pressured into paying those sorts of rates simply because there is a shortage."
He said some centres were being forced to close at times when they couldn't get enough qualified staff to maintain their required staffing ratios.
He declined to name those centres without their permission or even to say how many had been affected.
"It would be wrong for me to put a number to it, but it's an increasing number," he said.
"There are some services that are closing permanently. There are services being monitored by the Ministry of Education that are being told they are breaching the regulations, therefore their licence will be pulled."
He said a recent survey of his members found that centres were taking an average of more than 100 days to fill each teaching vacancy.
He said early childhood education (ECE) funding was topped up after every pay increase for kindergarten teachers up to 2011, but funding was not lifted after two subsequent kindergarten pay rises of 4 per cent and one of 0.38 per cent.
An NZEI spokeswoman said kindergarten teachers had a unified pay scale with primary and secondary teachers before this month's pay rises for school teachers, and were now seeking to keep up with their school colleagues.
"In terms of what that means for percentage increases, essentially it's the same as what primary teachers got, an immediate bump to catch them up to the unified pay scale - lumpy but on average a 5 per cent increase across the steps, then two 3 per cent increases to the base scale in the years following that," she said.
The school teachers' pay claims were costed at $1.5 billion over four years, yet Reynolds said the Budget lifted early childhood funding by only 1.8 per cent from next January.
"That's woefully insufficient to match a 17 to 23 per cent funding drop [per student hour] over the last 10 years."
Hipkins acknowledged that there was "a clear tightening of teacher supply in the early learning sector, although the impact on individual services is not known to the Ministry of Education as most service operate independently".
"I've recently met with representatives of the sector and have invited them to present me with a detailed breakdown of the key issues as a means of facilitating further talks," he said.
"Overall, the Government wants a more planned approach to establishing new services, greater support and increased monitoring. We are working on a workforce strategy for education to build a strong, culturally competent education workforce that drives a world-leading, learner focused, education system for the future.
"More immediately, we've put ECE teachers on the skills shortage list and invested $135 million into attracting more teachers, which includes increased funding rates for ECE teacher training providers. "