Many people are very fond of their pets and consider them furry members of the family. As a result, a number of organizations are starting to recognize — through extended leaves — the grief experienced by employees following the loss of a pet.
Shoppers Drug Mart considers pets to be part of the family and is flexible in its application of its bereavement leave benefit, according to Lana Gogas, manager of communications and corporate affairs for Shoppers Drug Mart in Toronto.
“Shoppers Drug Mart offers flexibility to employees who are dealing with a death in the family and this includes pets,” she said.
“Appreciating that each instance is unique, the employee and his or her manager can establish an appropriate length of time away from the office to deal with grieving.”
In the United States, employers such as pet insurance provider Trupanion, health and benefits company Maxwell Health, software company VM Ware and Kimpton hotels provide similar programs to employees, according to CBS News.
While pets are excluded from the definitions of immediately family in both federal and Ontario employment standards legislation, it is not inconceivable this exclusion could change, said Marc Kitay, employment and labour lawyer at Whitten & Lublin Employment Lawyers in Toronto.
“There is a growing movement to characterize animals as ‘sentient beings’ as opposed to ‘chattels’ and some jurisdictions have already begun moving in this direction,” he said.
“As the zeitgeist gradually moves towards treating pets as family members, and acknowledging the strong emotional bonds between pet and owner, change may someday find itself on the horizon.”
In December 2015, for example, the Quebec national assembly passed Bill 54, An Act to improve the legal situation of animals by announcing they are no longer property:
“Animals are not things. They are sentient beings and have biological needs.”
It also said “the condition of animals has become a social concern,” “animals contribute to the quality of life in Quebec society” and “the human species has an individual and collective responsibility to ensure animal welfare and safety.”
“Quebec was considerably behind in terms of animal welfare. This bill represents a positive legislative evolution that reflects advances in our society,” said Pierre Paradis, minister of agriculture, fisheries and food.
Aligning policy with cultural changes
To attract and retain the best talent, organizations need to align policies and procedures with the workplace culture and make sure that culture is focused on issues most important to the people in the workforce they are attempting to attract, according to Janet Salopek, partner and senior consultant at Salopek & Associates in Calgary.
“We’re challenging the definitions and starting to talk about a different outlook on how we have traditionally administered some of our policies and procedures,” she said.
“It’s discussions like this that will help employers think about their policies, their procedures and how they’re defining work when they write their policies. If we’re trying to improve that level of engagement within our organizations we need to look at changing our policies.”
One of those changes could very well be the inclusion of pets as immediate family under bereavement leave benefits, she said.
“The definition is changing and it’s evolving. Legislation is being very careful and organizations are being very careful that they’re not discriminatory. We’re broadening our definition of family to become more inclusive.”
Doing it right
If an organization does decide to expand its bereavement leave to include pets, it is important for employers to remember expanding bereavement leave does not change the way the benefit is enforced, said Kitay.
“In Ontario, the (Employment Standards Act) calls for the employee to provide evidence that is ‘reasonable’ in the circumstances, if the employer requests it. In practice though, for most employers, it is likely acceptable for an employee to simply inform the employer about the family member’s death,” he said.
Employers concerned about potential abuse of this type of benefit should be sure to reflect any changes in their written policy and ensure the policy and process of the benefit are consistently applied, said Lisa Kay, president and lead consultant of Peak Performance Human Resources in Toronto.
It’s also crucial to consider the way the entire workforce will be affected by an expanded bereavement leave benefit used only by a certain group, said Kay.
“The people who are eligible are appreciative and grateful and they are able to take advantage of this and it’s good for them but I think the other side of the coin is their colleagues, who are now in a position to pick up the slack or having to take on an additional workload during this leave period. Helping other employees to transition the work in a way that’s not going to negatively affect the rest of the workforce is going to be important,” she said.
“Employers really need to be sensitive about that.”
It is also crucial workers are protected, said Kitay. An employee’s tenure, seniority and length of service must continue throughout the leave and the employee cannot be permanently replaced.
Furthermore, an employer that provides a benefits plan will have to continue contributions when a worker is on leave.
When examining an issue such as the expansion of bereavement leave, said Kay, sensitivity is something employers should strive for.
“In general, people have become more accepting of the idea that family is not the traditional definition that it was 40 years ago. That’s expanded so we need to be sensitive to it.”
It is important for an employer to apply that sensitivity to every aspect of workplace culture, not just to the issue of a bereavement leave policy, said Salopek.
“What’s really important, and I think we’re seeing it more and more, is placing your policies and procedures in alignment with your value propositions,” said Salopek.
“You hear a lot of forward-thinking organizations speaking about their value proposition because they understand that, in order to compete in the labour market today, they have to pay attention to that.”
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