Flexibility, communication aid accommodation process

Canadian Human Rights Commission publishes new guide
By Lorna Harris
|hrreporter.com|Last Updated: 01/18/2008

Prolonged rates of absenteeism due to disability are relatively common in Canada. In fact, the National Institute of Disability Management and Research (NIDMAR) has suggested that between eight and 12 per cent of Canada’s workforce are off work due to illness or injury at any given time. Reintegrating recovered or recovering workers into the workplace can be challenging for workers and employers alike. A recent collective agreement signed between Protectolite Inc., a Scarborough, Ontario company and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the union representing its 47 bargaining unit employees, included specific language on return-to-work. The union representative acknowledged that the company was having trouble “getting people to come back to work” after being off as a result of an illness or injury. The new language addresses the obligation to come back not just when fit for regular duties but to return to modified duties if “suitable, temporary, modified work” is available.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission recently published a guide for managing this return-to-work process. Entitled A guide for Managing the Return to Work, it emphasizes that communicating openly and recognizing the uniqueness of each situation will go a long way to ease an employee back to work after a disability-related absence. Such communication includes regular contact with the employee, especially during a long absence, as well as regular consultation with health and medical specialists.

If the workplace is unionized, there is another layer of consultation to consider. The guide notes that a union representative can provide valuable advice, given that the employee may have to be accommodated in the workplace and that these accommodation measures will affect the rights (e.g., seniority rights) of other employees under the collective agreement. Also, the employee has the right to be represented by his or her union during the discussions. Accommodation measures can trump the terms of a collective agreement, but exploring possibilities that will not interfere with other employees’ rights and entitlements under the collective agreement is a sensible first step.