People working in the childcare sector are feeling "vulnerable and anxious" and should be moved up the priority list for the COVID-19 vaccine.
That's according to Teresa Heeney, CEO of Early Childhood Ireland.
She was speaking at the Citizens' Assembly on Gender Equality which met online to discuss the topic of 'Care' yesterday.
The meeting of 100 members of the Assembly focused on early years childcare as well as the social responsibility for care.
Speaking on Newstalk Breakfast with Susan Keogh today, Ms Heeney said her biggest concern is about the workforce in the sector and how employees can be retained.
She stated that Irish society as a whole needs to recognise that that the low level of investment in the industry needs to be improved.
Investment for children in preschool services in Ireland is around 0.2% of GDP compared to the EU average of 0.6%, Professor Nóirín Hayes, who was also speaking at the Assembly, said yesterday.
"We need to be aspiring to the levels of investment that we have in the Nordic countries," Ms Heeney added.
"We presented the example of Denmark where they don't have some of the characteristics that we, unfortunately, have here.
NEW: Our CEO presents to @CitizAssembly which is meeting today to examine the issue of Care
📺https://t.co/Qms6gx0Jbc@TeresaHeeney was asked to draw on the findings of our recent 'Pathways' research study which was funded by @_IHREC
— Early Childhood Ireland (@EarlyChildhdIRL) January 16, 2021
"There's no staff shortages, staff have 30 days annual leave, they have sick pay, they have maternity leave, so of the typical terms and conditions of a professional role that you would expect to have.
"Unfortunately, we don't have any of that, we have a highly gendered workforce as well, 98% of the [childcare] workforce in Ireland is female."
Ms Heeney added the sector in Ireland has "a long, long way to travel" in relation to improving those conditions for staff.
"The hourly wages are over 40% below the average national wage, about 80% have no sick pay scheme, which is obviously very important during COVID," she said.
"90% have no pension plans so there's no exit strategy, 65% of them have no paid maternity leave which is a huge issue.
Ms Heeney contended that the reopening of the sector in June without social distancing while "very difficult", has "gone well".
She said: "The public health advice would be that this sector remains safe and that we have done really well."
However, the reopening in January has been "extremely challenging", she added, with fewer staff available, and some having to homeschool their children or look after vulnerable family members.
"The number of staff who are available to come back is low, we're looking at occupancy rates since we reopened is down somewhere between 20 and 30%," she said.
She added that occupancy rates of 20% are "completely unsustainable" and workers should be moved up the priority list for the vaccine against COVID-19.
"I would remind the Minister [for Children] about the way that we have opened, we are open and operating with very little PPE, and no physical distancing in the services," Ms Heeney said.