Early childhood teachers say people are "leaving the sector in droves" because they are so underpaid.
Teachers from 130 centres across the country took part this morning in the industry's first ever paid stop-work meeting to vote on their latest pay offer in negotiations that have been dragging on since last year.
They earn on average 24 percent less than their counterparts in kindergarten and primary school, despite having the same qualifications.
Mel Burgess, a teacher at Adelaide Early Childhood Centre in Wellington, said it was a struggle to keep staff on in such low-paid roles.
"Why would they stay when they're so unpaid, or can get a better job down the road? Teachers are leaving, positions are going unfilled and that leaves a problem for everyone," she said.
Chloe Lundie-Hodge, a kaiako from Wellington's Hill Street Early Childhood Centre, said low pay had been a problem in the sector for decades.
"I love teaching... but it has meant that buying a house was far more difficult, and holidays and dinners out - I can't really do them when I'm in this job and being underpaid."
The teachers' union, NZEI Te Riu Roa, said kaiako covered by the Early Childhood Education Collective Agreement were offered a new minimum rate of $49,862 and a 1.5% increase to other printed rates.
Barnardos teachers were offered no increase to printed rates, aside from the same new minimum salary.
Burgess said that only benefited entry level positions and offered no progression for teachers with experience.
Workers want a double-digit payrise and a pay progression written into their contracts - but that's not on the table.
Burgess said the large majority of early childhood teachers were on individual contracts, which made it hard to bring about change.
"Unless you've got a way of collectivising, you have no power and you have no voice" she added.
Lundie-Hodge said kindergarten attained pay parity with primary schools through their union work in the early 2000s, but "the rest of the early childhood sector wasn't able to achieve this."
This year's Budget included more than $278 million for centres employing 100 percent qualified teachers, but the Early Childhood Council said when adjusted for inflation, early childhood centres were better off 10 years ago.
Its chief executive Peter Reynolds said the newly reinstated 100% qualified teacher funding band would be worth less than it was in 2020.
The funding for children over two is still $1.29 less than what kindergartens are paid.
Reynolds disagreed with this morning's meeting during work hours, labelling it irresponsible.
He said it would just drive further division within the sector, "but most importantly what possible purpose does it serve for the young children who need access to early childhood education? They've just been cast out really".
Lundie-Hodge said the stop-work action had to happen during work hours because the sector was at crisis point.
"That's our right and we exerted that right to show people that we are valuable and we are needed for you."
Parents dropping off their children at the Hill Street centre this morning were fully supportive of the teachers' decision.
Jasmine Bourne has been taking her children there since they were babies and said the workers were like family to them.
She said she was okay with the inconvenience for parents.
"My kids are looked after in a way I would want them to be looked after, which is so important to me... I couldn't survive without them (the teachers)".
Regarding future union meetings during work hours, Bourne said "I would be very annoyed on a long term basis, as I have a job, but so do they".
NZEI said it did not expect the final tally from today's votes until next week. Members would then consider the next steps in their campaign for pay parity.
Mel Burgess and her colleagues say they are not ruling out strike action.