Compassionate care top-ups very rare

With aging population, employees will need greater support, say experts
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/06/2011

In 2004, Saskatchewan Government Insurance (SGI) started topping up the employment insurance benefits for employees on compassionate care leave.

It’s one reason the Crown corporation has received national recognition as a top employer for families, said TamaraErhardt, vice-president of human resources and corporate services at SGI in Regina.

“We believe that it’s important to allow people who have to be away from work temporarily to provide care or support to a family member who’s gravely ill, and we feel we need to provide benefits that allow employees to achieve a comfortable work-life balance in those types of circumstances.”

Compassionate care benefits are EI benefits paid to people who have to be away from work temporarily to provide care or support to a family member who is gravely ill and who has a significant risk of death within 26 weeks. A maximum of six weeks of compassionate care benefits may be paid to eligible people.

While SGI tops up 100 per cent, that kind of generosity is rare. Very few companies offer any kind of compassionate care benefits beyond EI benefits, according to a survey by the Centre for Families, Work and Well-Being at the University of Guelph in Ontario and the Vanier Institute of the Family in Ottawa, the University of Alberta in Edmonton and the Université du Québec à Montréal.

Just 4.4 per cent of employers provide fully paid compassionate care leave while six per cent provide up to eight weeks of EI top-ups. And 27 per cent allow more than eight weeks of unpaid compassionate care leave, found the survey of 183 senior executives and HR managers. (People can still participate in the survey at until Dec. 30.)

And for many employees, that’s not enough. It can be challenging for people to live only on EI benefits and often an illness extends beyond eight weeks, according to Sharon Baxter, executive director of the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association (CHPCA) inOttawa. The association is pushing for several changes to the government program, including a boost to the EI benefits to 75 per cent, an extension from eight weeks to 52 weeks and greater flexibility so the leave doesn’t have to be taken all at the same time.

“Some of those things can be built into an employer plan as well,” said Baxter.

GlaxoSmithKline has done just that. The pharmaceutical company gives 13 weeks’ full paid leave and president and CEO Paul Lucas spoke recently in Toronto, challenging corporate Canada to increase support for hospice palliative care by providing compassionate care benefits for employees.

It’s like 30 years ago when parental leave was introduced, said Donna Lero, holder of the Jarislowsky Chair in Families and Work at the Centre for Families, Work and Well-Being. About one-half of employers are starting to recognize this is an important area while others don’t yet see it as a strategic or organizational imperative or are dealing with one or two employees on an individual basis.

There is a growing proportion of employees who have adult and elder-care responsibilities, with about one-third of employed women and one-quarter of men over the age of 45, said Lero.

“It’s a substantial proportion of your most skilled, senior employees… and younger employees too.”

But unlike maternity leave, compassionate care is often unpredictable and episodic or continuous and progressive, said Nora Spinks, president of Work-Life Harmony Enterprises in Toronto.

“All of those things make it really challenging for HR policies to be designed, for managers to implement those policies and for employees to take advantage of them. Often employees end up quitting or taking an unpaid leave or struggling through, resulting in them actually getting stress leave so it becomes a personal illness and a personal short-term disability because they’ve pushed themselves to such an extreme that they become ill themselves.”

And with continued cutbacks in community service and health-care practices, people are being discharged days after surgery, instead of weeks, with the expectation families will provide the necessary care, she said.

As an employee benefit, it’s not hugely costly since few people will take the leave at any given time, said Baxter. Since 2008, SGI has had just eight employees among 1,800 take such a leave, said Erhardt.

“We didn’t anticipate it would be a significant cost but, obviously, as the population ages across Canada, we expect that there will be more uptake for this program.

“We still anticipate that there will be circumstances where employees use compassionate leave and they may use some other combination of other leaves that are also available to them.”

As alternatives, 29 per cent of employers said workers use personal days for caregiving, while 45 per cent use paid sick days and 22 per cent use paid time off or banked time, found the survey by the Centre for Families, Work and Well-Being.

But what happens when employees use up those days and the people they are caring for are still hanging on? said Baxter. “It’s often not enough,” she said. “Do you want somebody that comes back exhausted and has used up all their time?”

The original government plan introduced in 2004 was meant for parents looking after terminally ill children, said Spinks.

“The whole idea behind it is to have job protection, income security and flexibility as it relates to end-of-life care,” she said. “It’s very complicated and most people don’t understand it and those who are advocates from the caregiving or elder-care community are saying, ‘This doesn’t work.’ Well it doesn’t work because it was never designed for caring for somebody who might be recovering from illness or surgery or injury or hip replacement, knee replacement, heart bypass —whatever.”

It’s a big issue that’s only going to get bigger, but boosting this benefit can help attract and retain workers, said Spinks.

“If you’re 59, 62 and you’re planning on being in the paid labour force for another five, seven, 10 years but mom has an acute health-care crisis and you need to be off for four months, right now one of the default positions is quit,” she said. “If we can create opportunities for (workers) to take those career breaks and then continue in their job the way that we do with maternity leave, then it’s much easier than having to re-enter the labour force or to go into early retirement.”

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