The Government has made tweaks to its early childhood centre funding to encourage facilities to pay staff more, but the sector's union says the change is "backpedalling" on commitments and that thousands of ECE teachers would be unable to get a pay rise next year.
NZEI Te Riu Roa president Liam Rutherford said the change could impact about 5000 teachers who were being asked to "wait another year before they'll get paid fairly".
A previous announcement meant the first six pay grades for ECE teachers would be included in funding to the centres to boost teacher pay from 2022.
However, the sixth will now be increased from 2023.
Rutherford called it "gutting", with a protest proposed in November.
"We believe that regardless of the Government's funding threshold for employers being lowered today, any fair employer who opts in and receives this additional public money should continue to pay the full six steps, as originally intended, to their teachers from next January."
However, the Education Minister said the change was a "pragmatic decision" expected to benefit a "significant number" of preschool children and their families from next year.
"We’ve now separated step six from steps one to five to encourage more early learning services to opt in immediately."
Chris Hipkins said it reflected "a complex sector with public, private and NGO sector operators using a range of business models".
"From 1 January, 2022, centres opting into the scheme will receive Government funding and be required to pay equivalent certificated teachers at the same level as those on the first five steps on the kindergarten teachers’ collective agreement," Hipkins said.
"It’s a significant step in the Government’s long-term strategy to lift pay, starting with those at or near the bottom end of the pay scale, and repair long-standing pay inequities."
The Government previously announced changes intended to help address the sector's difficulty in recruiting and retaining teachers, and to bring its pay in line with kindergarten teachers.
A $170 million funding boost, signalled in Budget 2021 in May, could see some teachers' pay increase by 17 per cent when it comes into effect from January 1, 2022.
It also was set to move the minimum yearly rate from $49,862 to $51,358, with existing rates having already increased from July 2021.
Teachers must also now meet certain standards to qualify for wage progression, and "not simply the length of service".
He also confirmed he had asked the Ministry of Education for advice on improving funding approaches in order to achieve pay parity.
"This work will need ongoing stakeholder buy-in to achieve sustained progress," he said.
It comes after the Government last year put $151 million into early learning services to increase the pay of an estimated 17,000 ECE teachers.
It intended to bring the minimum pay for ECE teachers up to $49,862 on July 1, from between $45,491 to $46,832, bringing them into line with kindergarten teachers.