HR professionals supportive of caregiver leave

Requests for leave increasing with aging population: Survey
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/13/2012

Last summer, Cheryl Berst’s mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. To care for her, Berst considered taking family medical leave, which allows Ontario employees to take up to eight weeks of unpaid job leave to care for a seriously ill family member.

However, Berst would have had to split the leave with her four siblings, so the family decided against it.

“It’s not a leave you each get an entitlement to — you can share it, so one does the two-week waiting period and the rest of us would split the leftover six weeks so, really, how would that have benefited any of us?” said Berst, HR and safety advisor at 135-employee Thunder Bay Hydro in Thunder Bay, Ont.

The requirement to split the leave is something Berst hopes will be eliminated in the province’s proposed Family Caregiver Leave Act because it would at least give caregivers more options, she said.

More than one-half (57.1 per cent) of HR professionals fully support the proposed Family Caregiver Leave Act, according to a recent Pulse Survey. And 38.5 per cent said they support the idea, but not fully, found the survey of 604 Canadian HR Reporter readers and members of the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA).

If passed, the act would allow employees in Ontario to take up to eight weeks of unpaid leave to care for a seriously ill or injured family member. Unlike family medical leave, the act does not require a significant risk of death within 26 weeks. For example, an employee could take the leave to care for a young child spending time in a hospital or an elderly parent suffering a broken hip, said the provincial government.

“The caregiver leave is much looser,” said Berst. “It’s someone with a serious medical condition, so if your spouse, God forbid, has cancer and requires chemotherapy, you could take that time. They don’t have to be in a situation where they could die in the next 26 weeks.”

Having access to this type of leave will become increasingly important as the population ages and people live longer, said Nancy Stachowski, HR manager at Dana Holding, a manufacturing company based in Cambridge, Ont., with 115 employees.

“We have a lot of mechanisms to extend life but not a lot of mechanisms to cope with that extension of the lifespan,” she said. “There are more treatments for life-threatening diseases and a lot of people care for their parents now or have a lot of involvement in their aging family’s direct care.”

One-half (50.8 per cent) of survey respondents have seen at least a small increase in requests for caregiver leave at their organization over the past five years while 36.6 per cent have not seen any increase.

At Dana Holding, a handful of employees are very closely tied to their aging parents’ care. In a couple of cases, the parents live with their children so they are directly dependent on them, said Stachowski. Other employees drive their parents to appointments for dialysis, radiation or chemotherapy and help them understand their treatment.

“I don’t know if I’d let my 75-year-old mother go to an appointment alone to determine what kind of radiation treatment was suitable for a cancer if she had it,” she said. “The grown child is going to be dealing with that, more often than not, directly.”

Two-thirds (66.4 per cent) of survey respondents don’t think unpaid job-protected leave provides enough support to caregivers. Ontario is calling on the federal government to extend employment insurance (EI) to those who would take family caregiver leave, as it has done for Ontarians who take family medical leave.

Finances played a big role in Berst’s and her siblings’ decision not to take family medical leave, she said.

“I asked one of my sisters and she said, financially, she just couldn’t afford it. She said, ‘On EI you get $400 a week and by the time I saw EI, it would be time to go back to work,’” said Berst. “I took a day a week or something (unpaid) and financially that didn’t hit me as hard as it would have to have been on EI.”

IT services company CSC already offers a top-up for maternity leave and compassionate care leave and it would likely do the same if this legislation was passed, said Karen Nash, director of HR at the 1,100-employee company in Kanata, Ont.

“It’s just going to be like any other leave and the actual usage is not that significant so in terms of cost to the employer, I think it’s minimal,” she said. “The financial strain of having to take unpaid leave only adds to the stress that the individual is already experiencing and you don’t want to add that, on top of everything else.”

Two-thirds (66.3 per cent) of HR professionals said their organization could manage the absence of an employee for up to eight weeks, but with difficulty, found the Pulse Survey. And one-fifth (21 per cent) said they could do so easily.

To manage the absence, CSC would either use contingent labour or redistribute the workload among employees, said Nash.

“Because we don’t manufacture anything… we can move work around very easily through the use of information technology,” she said. “Employees would understand that, because this could affect them, it’s the right thing to do and it’s being fair.”

Employers could also consider allowing employees to work from home or adapt their schedules around family care requirements, such as treatment appointments, said Stachowski.

Cross-functional training can also make it easier for the organization so it’s not scrambling if an emergency should occur, she said. Essential job functions should be cross-trained by other appropriate staff members.

“No one really plans on having something tragic happen so I don’t think someone would necessarily stick around for a week or two to make sure someone is trained, so the cross-functional training (is important) just in case something happens.” 

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