The forgotten family members

Leaves allow time to care or grieve for people – but what about our four-legged friends?

By Jeffrey R. Smith

In recent years, legislatures have been doing more to help employees balance family life with work life when something urgent comes up. There are more leaves than ever available that allow employees to take time off work to deal with crises in their lives and not have to worry about whether their job will still be there when they come back.

Job-protected leaves now exist for employees to take if they need to care for a seriously ill family member (either in the short term or to provide longer-term care); to grieve a deceased family member; or if a child is abducted or killed. Fathers are also eligible to split parental leave with mothers if they so desire. Family-related leaves aren’t just limited to new mothers any more. Many of leaves don’t have to be paid leaves, but employees are still entitled to the time off.

In addition to all of these leaves, family status is protected under human rights legislation in most jurisdictions, which means employers are obligated to accommodate certain obligations employees may have in relation to their families. While this doesn’t mean employees should get to leave work early to go to their child’s soccer game, it does mean if an employee needs to work flexible hours to care for a child when there are no other childcare options and it won’t hurt the employer too much, the employer should allow it.

So at this point in time, if an employee has a seriously ill family member that needs care — or a family member who has passed away — that employee is entitled to take some time off to deal with the situation. Employment standards legislation in the various jurisdictions generally indicate that these leaves are related to immediate family — parents, children, grandparents, and sometimes aunts and uncles. But what if there’s a medical crisis or death of someone in the family who doesn’t meet these qualifications — or isn’t even a person at all?

For many people, their pet is as much a family member as any person, particularly for dog and cat owners. These animals have personalities and often form bonds just as close or closer with people. It’s no coincidence dogs are known as “man’s best friend.” If a pet passes away, it can be devastating to the owner, perhaps more so than the death of some family members. And if a pet is seriously injured or suffers from a medical condition that requires frequent attention and monitoring, it could be difficult to balance with the normal work schedule. Should flex hours be allowed in such a situation?

Even if one is skeptical that the death or injury of a pet should be considered on a similar level as that of a person, there’s no doubt that, for some people, their pets are as important as people in their family — especially if those people have few family members or are otherwise alone. If something happens to the pet, the effect on the pet owner can be just as devastating. And that person isn’t likely going to be that productive at work, so perhaps a short compassionate leave would make sense anyway.

Most employers have provisions for employees to take time off for various reasons — personal days, family days, vacation days, and the like. But these are usually limited to a specific maximum. If an employee has used up her vacation leave and personal days but faces a pet that needs medical care or has passed away, is it worthwhile to have her come to work miserable and with her mind elsewhere? And perhaps angry her employer for making her come in to work?

Should pets be considered family members as part of the growing trend of work/life balance and the types of leave available to employees? Or should pet-related obligations remain something employees must address in their allotment of vacation and personal days?

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