Earlier in October news outlets reported that a woman in Italy had successfully petitioned her employer to allow her to use two days of paid leave to care for her sick dog, rather than use vacation allotment. The employee argued that she had a legal duty to take proper care of her pet, and as she lived alone, had no alternatives other than to care for the animal herself.
The case raises many issues for employers as many employees have pets which are “family members” (and often treated better than family members). Can employees use sick days, emergency leave, family responsibility days, or bereavement leave for pet-related purposes?
There is no province which provides leave which may explicitly be used for pet-related absences and almost all provinces restrict the use of family responsibility or emergency leave to family members who are “persons”.
For example, Ontario employees are currently entitled to up to 10 days of personal emergency leave (currently for employers with 50 or more employees, but proposed for all employers under Bill 148), but the leave is to be used for personal illnesses, injuries or “urgent matters” concerning a number of listed “individuals”.
In Alberta, effective January 1, 2018 employees are entitled to up to five (5) days per calendar year, if necessary, for the purposes of their own health, or to meet “family responsibilities in relation to a family member.” It is expected that the definition of “family member” will be further amended by regulation, but not expected to include those who are not “persons”.
In Manitoba, family leave of up to three (3) days of unpaid leave each year is provided for purposes related to the health of the employee or for the employee to meet family responsibilities in relation to a family member, defined as a “person”.
The one exception which appears to have some flexibility in its interpretation is Newfoundland and Labrador which provides up to 7 days of unpaid leave during each 12 month period for sick or family responsibility leave. The employee is required to provide a statement in writing to the employer of the nature of the family responsibility when the leave requested is 3 consecutive days or more in length, but the purpose of the “family responsibility leave” is not further defined..
A 2017 survey of 2,000 UK employees conducted by Animal Friends Pet Insurance revealed that those surveyed used nearly 25% of their sick days for the care of a pet and 42% of employees not being truthful about the reason for their absences with younger employees more likely than older employees to do so. It is probable that behaviour is similar for Canadian employees and most employers do not require reasons for sick leave absences unless for extended periods.
Pet owners may also request leave for bereavement when a pet dies or at the time of adopting a new pet to assist them with settling in, both of which are reasonable requests, but whether such leaves should be at the expense of an employee’s vacation entitlement, or in addition to, remains arguable.
Most provincial human rights provisions include family status as a protected ground, but even though pet owners may consider themselves “parents” of their pets there is no extension, as yet, of this provision to pets. Those without children however may argue that they suffer discrimination on the basis of family status in that they do not receive the same benefits as those with children, as they can’t take advantage of the family responsibility leave provisions to the same extent as those with children.
Employers must decide how much time and energy they are prepared to invest in policing the leave days employees are entitled to. If an employee is entitled to take 3 or 5 days per year for “family responsibilities”, does it matter if they are sick themselves, caring for a sick child, or taking the dog to the vet? It adds up to a day’s entitlement taken either way and vacation or lieu time will have to be used for any days required after that.
Employers are advised, however, to ensure that the type of leave day taken is recorded to track trends of absenteeism, paid and unpaid leave days, statutory entitlements, and leaves which may attract the employer’s duty to accommodate under human rights protections.
For more discussion on leaves and absenteeism see the topics Absenteeism (SPP HR3.11), Short-term Disability/Sick Pay Benefits (SPP HR 4.13), Accommodation of the Basis of Family Status (SPP HR 5.18), Personal Emergency Leave (Family Responsibility Leave) (SPP HR 4.12) in Human Resources PolicyPro published by First Reference Inc. Request a free 30-day trial here!