The childcare crisis in Warrnambool has reached a tipping point with some families fearing they will lose their place at one of the city's largest centres.
Koala Childcare and Early Learning Centre sent messages to parents this week asking them to consider keeping their children home if they could on four days due to staff shortages.
But when a Warrnambool single-mum of two, who did not wish to be named, turned up to drop off her child on Tuesday morning because she needed to work, the doors were locked because the centre had reached capacity.
Parents were told in a letter on Tuesday night the centre may need to pause enrolment for some children of non-working families until they were able to recruit more educators.
The sector has been in crisis in Warrnambool with unprecedented demand and hundreds on waiting lists.
The Warrnambool mum said it was the first time she had heard of the door being locked at the centre.
"It was a shock," she said.
It was while she was driving to the centre that she missed the message about the centre being full.
"Due to staffing constraints we have reached our capacity today. Unfortunately we will not be able to accept any more children today," it read.
"If I had dropped my kid off an hour earlier they might have been OK for the day but it would have flowed on to the other families," the mum said.
She said she believed she wasn't the only one turned away.
"What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to tell my employer? That with no notice that I can't come in to work?" she said.
"I work part-time hours. I only get paid for what I work... technically I won't get paid for today."
She said parents now feared losing their jobs because they had no reliable childcare.
The mum said she was told interstate management was working on a plan to prioritise who needed the care more than others.
The mum said there had been issues with staff shortages since September last year when the messages requesting parents keep their children home first started.
"It's going to have to come down to a boiling point. How are they actually going to pick and choose whose children they are going to accept?" she said.
"There is a flow-on effect for local businesses as well."
She said she spent the day ringing other childcare centres in the hope of finding a spot.
The mum said she had been waiting 18 months for full-time care at multiple centres but had only able to get three days, and now feared losing those.
"I'm pretty worried. It's hard enough with inflation. The cost of living is so high at the moment," she said.
"I rely on my part-time job. That pays for my groceries. If I don't get paid, the kids don't eat."
While the fees are waived for the missed day, the incident has left her concerned about how she will support her family.
Craig Alchin, the chief operating officer of Story House Early Learning, which operates the centre, said senior Victorian management would be on site in Warrnambool today.
"Our Warrnambool service is dealing with unprecedented demand for our education and care and finding educators to assist with this demand is proving a continuing challenge," he said.
"Warrnambool childcare services, like most of the Australian childcare sector, is finding staffing to be a serious challenge and has for some time."
Mr Alchin said families at the Warrnambool centre on Tuesday were communicated to through its internal system about the educator shortfall.
"The doors were made inaccessible as members of our front desk were working in rooms due to educator shortages, and the service wanted to always maintain the highest safety for our children and eliminate the potential of parents dropping off children in a hurry, without talking to an educator, which may have caused our service to operate outside of legislated ratios," he said.
"Being of the care sector, we absolutely understand the pressure these challenges put on our families.
"However, we will not compromise safety."
Mr Alchin said the centre would follow Department of Education guidelines on how families would be prioritised for care.
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