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Returning from parental leave and accommodating family status

After 20 weeks of parental leave, I’m back in front of my computer, checking my email, catching up on workplace changes, putting together a schedule, recalling whether we use the serial comma (only when necessary) and generally getting back into the swing of things. It’s a strange feeling to return to a job after such a long break, and something I’ve not experienced before. But it’s a common experience in the workforce. Whether the leave is due to a new arrival, an injury or other health condition, care for a loved one in need, or some other reason, workers take time off and eventually have to reintegrate. Sometimes the workers’ lives are quite different upon their return, and sometimes the workplace has undergone changes, too.

For me, I’ve got a baby at home now. You might say that’s a pretty big change! If returning to work meant leaving my house, he might be only a minor distraction (during working hours); however, home is not just where my heart is, but also my office. Indeed, right now I hear him making noise while my wife changes him after a nap.

Other employees returning to work might have to deal with the recurring pain of an injury, an ongoing illness or disability, even perhaps the stress of readjusting to civilian life after training or deployment in the armed forces. I certainly won’t claim to have post-traumatic stress, but I do wonder how I’ll perform: whether I’ll be able to focus on work and keep up, whether my work will be as good as it was before. Per the law, my employer has reinstated me to the same position I left (at the same wage), although with some accommodation to ease my transition, and I will no doubt be expected to perform up to my previous standard. I know I’ll need the help!

While employment/labour standard legislation providing for parental leaves of absence is silent on accommodation, courts across the country have in recent years made it clear that employers must assist employees who are caring for family members, young or old. Indeed, failure to accommodate an employee’s family status may be a contravention of human rights law. I’m sure you’ve already got a policy on parental and other leaves, but have you considered the implications of employee requests for accommodation on the basis of their family status?

Human Rights Lawyer Donna Seale offers three tips to prepare for employee requests for accommodation:

  1. Implement a written accommodation policy specifically related to family status
  2. Follow a clearly identifiable process when assessing requests for accommodation on the basis of family status
  3. Be open to a variety of accommodation options

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This is good advice for any request for accommodation. Flexibility will go a long way to helping employees reintegrate into the workplace and avoiding resentment and conflict between returning employees and their employer. And, as always, consistency will limit complaints of unfairness or favouritism, and help demonstrate due diligence in the event of a legal challenge.

It’s important to remember that these measures offer more than simple compliance with the law. Employees returning to work from leaves may be facing difficult situations and increased stress. Accommodation will help reduce that stress and work better. It should also make them happier, generally improve their work-life balance and offer all the benefits of those things.

While we’re talking about leaves of absence, take a look at Stuart Rudner’s “Myths and misunderstandings regarding employees on leave,” and learn about some common mistakes employers make. For instance:

In most cases, the employer will have an obligation to return the individual to the same position that they held prior to the period of leave…. I have seen situations where employers attempt to circumvent this obligation by renaming the position, or modifying the job duties ever so slightly and then deeming it to be a new position…. If the purported elimination of the position is found to be a sham, then the employer will be penalized. If the position that the individual held prior to their leave truly no longer exists, then the obligation will usually be to put them into a “comparable position.”

Adam Gorley
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Adam Gorley

Adam Gorley is a copywriter, editor and researcher at First Reference. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks, Inside Internal Controls and other First Reference publications. He writes about general HR issues, accessibility, privacy, technology in the workplace, accommodation, violence and harassment, internal controls and more. Read more
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