Employers must accommodate child care needs

A landmark Canadian ruling requiring employers to create work schedules that accommodate their workers’ child care needs will affect all workplaces, but may have a disproportionately large impact on smaller operations.

“Allowing someone to amend their childcare obligations isn’t going to affect the financial viability of larger organizations,” said Lynn Rutherford, Director for the Center for Respectful and Healthy Workplaces at Sheridan College, “but some smaller businesses will argue that it does change theirs.”

Reasonable work hours

Justice Leonard Mandamin ruled in favour of Fiona Johnstone’s right to demand  reasonable work hours to accommodate her childcare needs.  Johnstone, now mother to two children, did shiftwork alongside her husband for the Canada Border Services Agency – a scenario that made seeking childcare nearly impossible. Her only option for  manageable hours was to bump down to part-time work.

In his ruling, Mandamin wrote that the CBSA considered  medical and religious reasons when assessing employee schedule-change requests, but not child care needs. The CBSA “responded to Ms. Johnstone on the basis of a blanket policy that required her to forfeit her status as a full-time employee.”

Now employers will be required to accommodate family status requests to the point of “undue hardship”, when the viability of the enterprise is affected.

Having children not a “lifestyle choice”

Rutherford explained that the ruling does not relieve employees of making a good-faith search for daycare, but that the goal is to remove barriers to people participating in the workforce. The ruling implies that having children and consequently needing childcare can not be approached as a product of lifestyle choices – or something that can be easily changed.

“I don’t think there’s anything more fundamental than having a new generation,” said Gregory Prince, a father juggling the responsibilities of childcare, work and a tough commute. He and his wife must balance their careers with the needs of their 2-year-old daughter, a growing reality for dual-income and single-parent families.

The workplace has been slow to evolve from the needs of single-income households in the 1950s, when the majority of women were home to cover childcare. Not only has the number of women in the workforce exploded since then, but the amount of time people spend in work is also increasing. Between 1991 and 2001, the number of employees working 35 – 39 hours per week dropped from 48 per cent to 27 per cent. Meanwhile, those working 50+ hours increased from 1 in 10 to 1 in 4.

“The employer’s worried – ‘If I give you these hours, then everyone is going to ask for these hours’,” said Prince. “But I think that’s a better option than having an employee that’s stressed out.”

Prince reflects the changing nature of childcare responsibilities within the family, where the role of fathers is sharply increasing in light of mothers’ participation in the workforce.

Despite evolving roles, 75 per cent of Canadian employees face work hours that do not mesh well with school days. The flexibility of the employer becomes key.

Caregivers feeling the squeeze

Alongside struggles with childcare, the number of employees caring for elderly relatives ballooned from 5 per cent in 1991 to 31 per cent in 2001.

“As the baby boomers get older, their parents get older and they will have to choose between work obligations and parental obligations,” said Rutherford, citing the added difficulty of long waiting lists for long-term care centers.

Mandamin’s ruling is expected to pave the way for accommodations regarding elder care.

As demographics, technologies and lifestyles undergo unprecedented change, this ruling was only a matter of time – time that employees will gain for those unpaid but fundamental responsibilities of life.

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