Finding right balance with caregiver leave (Analysis)

Leave must support individual without penalizing employer
By Kristina Hidas
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/13/2012

The Pulse Survey on the Ontario government’s proposed Family Caregiver Leave Act drew a lot of thoughtful commentary that addressed the complexity of the legislation, which would allow employees in the province to take up to eight unpaid weeks off work to care for seriously ill or injured family members.

It’s clear HR professionals are well aware, both from personal and professional experience, of the issues at hand. The population is getting older and the care of aging and ill family members is an increasingly important issue that needs to be addressed by government and business alike.

Comments focused on three main questions:

• Who should pay for family caregiver leave?

• How can it be administrated in a way that supports the individual without penalizing the employer, while minimizing the risk of abuse of the system?

• How can businesses, especially smaller ones, handle the increased administrative burden of the new legislation while running operations and staying competitive in the marketplace?

Almost all (95.6 per cent) respondents supported the idea of family caregiver leave, either fully (57.1 per cent) or in part (38.5 per cent). Almost one-third are either caregivers themselves or have been in the past. The written comments reflected this number — respondents answered with a level of engagement and interest that showed how personal an issue this is for many Canadians.

One-third of respondents (33.6 per cent) said unpaid job-protected leave provides enough support but more than one-half (55.3 per cent) said the leave would have to be paid for it to be of any real assistance.

That said, the question of who exactly should pay for family caregiver leave was raised but not answered. Some believe the leave should be paid for in full by the government; others said the taxpayer cannot afford any of it to come out of public funds; while others argued employers cannot be expected to pick up the tab.

One recurring theme in respondents’ comments was that, however expensive it is to pay for the leave, failure to address this issue will result in decreased productivity and increased turnover, claims for short-term disability, sick leave and stress leave that will be equally, if not more, expensive over the long term.

In terms of managing legislated caregiver leave, survey participants expressed concern for small and mid-sized organizations — 66.3 per cent said their organization could manage the leave but with difficulty.

Suggestions included provisions for smaller workplaces to be granted discretion to deal with the leaves on a one-off basis, relying on flexible work arrangements, short workweeks and shared leave among family members.

Another idea was to mitigate the impact of an employee being off the job for up to eight weeks through work-at-home provisions that ensure some continuity between the employee, his colleagues and the work being done during the leave.

Interestingly, support for the proposed legislation came from organizations of all sizes — respondents practising HR at small operations were as much in favour, fully or in part, of family caregiver leave as those from large companies.

One thing that’s irrefutable is the importance of the HR practitioner’s role in the contemporary workplace. Illustrating the management of human capital is as critical as it is complex, respondents drew a picture of an environment in which government is burdened with deficits, business is struggling to remain competitive in the global marketplace — while adhering to legislation and retaining the talent and knowledge of employees — and individuals are faced with a tough economy and juggling work and family commitments.

At the centre of the picture, HR professionals are trying to find solutions that address all these issues in the most productive way possible. While we have not arrived at a perfect solution, this Pulse Survey confirms a majority of respondents feel this issue is of growing importance to them both personally and as HR professionals, and they are ready to work with government and businesses to find a solution that strikes an important balance in a difficult situation.

Kristina Hidas is vice-president of HR research and development at the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) in Toronto. She can be reached at khidas@hrpa.ca or (416) 923-2324 ext. 370.

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