As workplaces and schools closed by the COVID-19 pandemic reopen throughout Canada, many employees are still juggling work with caring for their children who are learning remotely.
Employers have a duty under Canadian laws to accommodate parents in certain circumstances, HR experts say, and some provinces have enacted additional protections tied to COVID-19. The federal government has also enacted a temporary benefit for parents who are able to work part time only.
“Employers concerned about maintaining health and safety in their workplaces are asking parents of children attending school or day care to keep teleworking—at least for a while,” said Geneviève Lord, HR manager of people and culture at Pvisio, an HR consultancy in Montreal.
Government officials said they will continue to support Canadians during the ongoing pandemic. The federal government announced in August 2020 that it will transition people receiving the soon-to-expire Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) to more-flexible and more-generous employment insurance programs: the Canada Recovery Benefit, the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit and the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit (CRCB).
Under the CERB, which covers the period from March 15 to Oct. 3, Canadian residents who stop working because of COVID-19 can apply for temporary income support.
The CRCB, effective for one year beginning Sept. 27, will provide $500 Canadian dollars (approximately $381 USD) a week for up to 26 weeks to eligible Canadians.
“The closure of schools and other day care and day program facilities to prevent the spread of COVID-19 has meant many Canadians have been unable to work because they needed to provide care to children or support to other dependents who had to stay home,” Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough said on Aug. 20. “The government is committed to ensuring parents and others with dependents do not need to choose between caring for them and paying the bills.”
Employers’ Duty to Accommodate Parents
Human rights statutes in Canada prohibit discrimination against working parents based on family status, said Cissy Pau, principal consultant at Clear HR Consulting in Vancouver, British Columbia. Nonbiological parents and those in parent-like roles are included in family status protection.
Experts say employers have a legal duty to accommodate parents when their caregiving responsibilities conflict with work duties, unless doing so would create an undue hardship for the employer—such as financial cost or health and safety concerns. Employers can modify accommodations in response to changing circumstances.
“In the COVID era, disruptions to schools and day cares have certainly caused an increase in the number of accommodation requests,” said Hilary Page, a lawyer at SpringLaw in Toronto.
Before seeking accommodation from an employer, an employee should explore possible arrangements for child care during working hours, advised Kelly Doctor, an attorney with Goldblatt Partners in Toronto.
“Parents may be able to trade off child care responsibilities with another adult in their household, rely on family members or pay for a baby sitter,” Doctor continued. “But not all of these options are feasible, due to cost, availability, or because of health and safety concerns—such as if the child or potential caregiver has a medical condition that would make them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.”
Employees should check to see if accommodations are provided in the employer’s policies, Lord said. If not, employees should communicate their needs to their manager or HR department.
“By speaking with HR, employees can then proactively seek answers to their most pressing questions,” said Lisa Durante, founder of LDI Consulting in Toronto. “Then, employees can have a more productive conversation with their manager to find a solution that works for everyone.”
Once a parent has established a need for accommodation, experts said, their options will depend on the circumstances of the family and the employer. These options may include:
- Working from home.
- Allowing employees to work flexible hours, such as working in the morning or evening.
- Reducing working hours temporarily from full time to three or four days a week.
- Modifying and reducing shift schedules based on when child care is available or when parents can divide work productivity among themselves.
- Taking paid leave, if that option is available.
“Employers need to be flexible and work with their employees to find solutions that work for everyone—at least if they’re serious about retaining their employees well past this pandemic,” Durante added.
If the employer and employee cannot find any other solution, the employee could consider an unpaid leave of absence, Doctor noted.
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Protections Vary in Canadian Provinces
In Ontario, employees may be entitled to job protection under infectious disease emergency leave if they need to care for a child for reasons related to COVID-19, Doctor said.
But such employees need to substantiate their need for accommodation with evidence and may not be entitled to the accommodation of their choice, Page explained. For example, a parent asking to stay home to care for children may need to demonstrate that he or she unsuccessfully explored day care options. “In this case, a day care rejection letter or proof of being on a waitlist might be appropriate,” she said.
Quebec’s Labor Standards Act states that an employee may be absent from work for 10 days each year to fulfill obligations related to the care, health or education of a child, Lord stated.
Alberta has issued a temporary regulation that entitles employees to unpaid leave to meet the employee’s family responsibilities with respect to COVID-19, noted Tom Ross, an attorney with McLennan Ross in Calgary, Alberta. “Before taking this leave in Alberta, the employee must give the employer as much notice as is reasonable and practicable in these circumstances,” Ross said. “The employer may also request verification of the employee’s entitlement to the leave, though an employee is not required to provide a medical certificate.”
In British Columbia, Pau said, an employee can take unpaid, job-protected leave related to COVID-19 under the Employment Standards Act. The temporary measure is in effect until the pandemic is declared over.
Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia.