Nobody should have to fight to take care of their family

In 2001, I had to fight for parental leave.

Working for the federal government, my third baby on the way, my employer refused to implement new legislation extending parental leave top-up pay from six to twelve months, as provided in our collective agreement.

Eventually, I convinced my colleagues to write a briefing note that our assistant deputy minister used to ensure 12 months of top-up parental leave pay for me and every other pregnant woman in my department.

That fight kick-started my involvement in the union.

Remember, this was the federal public service – a workplace that ought to lead by example.

No one, I thought – least of all a federal public servant – should have to fight to take care of their family. How wrong I was!

Times have changed but challenges haven’t.

More time with family is a top priority of workers in eight countries

A rapid rise in the numbers of millennial parents in the workplace, a decline of boomers, an increase in precarious employment, the high cost of housing, the lowered expectations for the global economy – all serve to magnify what matters most (or ought to): more time with family. According to a recent survey of 3,000 workers in eight countries (including Canada) the top priority of most is to spend more time with family.

In 2017, the Trudeau government announced that all working parents under federal jurisdiction would be given the option of extending their parental leave even further – from the current 35 weeks to as much as 61 weeks. For a government elected on, among other things, growing the middle class, advancing feminism and bettering work-life balance, it seemed sensible and progressive.

But a clear weakness in the policy from the start was its failure to provide any additional money to support extended parental leave. Sure, parents can extend their leave further but only on the same budget. They can choose to receive the existing employment insurance (EI) parental benefit rate of 55 per cent of average weekly earnings over 35 weeks or a lower benefit rate of 33 per cent spread out over a maximum of 61 weeks.

That’s left employers such as the federal government with some difficult questions to answer – specifically, how the federal government can lead by example and make it financially feasible for federal public servants to take advantage of the extended parental leave.

In addition, parental leave isn’t the only paid leave that working families need.

More paid parental leave is in order

When critical or terminal illness strikes, what protections exist to ensure a breadwinner doesn’t lose their job or suffer catastrophic financial loss caring for a critically ill or dying family member? According to the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association, nearly one-quarter (23 per cent) of Canadians cared for a family member or close friend with a serious health condition in the previous year – 41 per cent of whom had to rely on personal savings. Changes to federal law, also announced in 2017, provide job security and up to 26 weeks of leave at as much as 55 per cent of average pay to provide end-of-life, compassionate care to a loved one. But given the uncertain prognosis of many diseases how many actually find this amount adequate?

We all dream of happy families. Sadly, some have far simpler dreams of not living in violence. Leave specifically designed to help victims of domestic violence get the legal and other supports they and their children need has become recognized as vital, even if it is rarely used. Australia is a leader in this area. In 2016, the Australian state of Victoria provided public-sector employees up to 20 days of paid family violence leave. Last year, Canada announced it would provide federally-regulated workers in the private sector 10 days domestic violence leave, only half of it paid. My union and others that represent government employees are currently negotiating our own domestic violence leave provisions.

There should be no more sympathetic advocate for more paid parental leave than the government that announced extending it. The glaring absence of any increased EI benefit is a significant shortcoming of the government’s current policy.

It’s important to remember that the government’s recent parsimonious extension of parental leave has occurred at a time when the public service continues to undergo tremendous disruption due to the failed Phoenix pay system. Try raising a family on a paycheque you can’t be certain will be there. It’s caused some of my members to postpone the whole idea of raising a family.

'I can honestly say fighting cancer was easier than fighting Phoenix'

And those who do have stories to tell. Many focus on the shortages of leave to care for ill or dying family members – the new mother whose sudden debilitating illness requires that her partner use up all his leave to care for the family, the life partner with Stage Four cancer and a few months to live, the child with life-threatening allergies or the one who requires surgery and extensive post-op care, the parent with dementia. These real challenges have been made all the harder by the habitual failures of the Phoenix pay system to reliably pay people – like the member who went through maternity leave without any pay at all. As one member remarked about her own struggles with Phoenix while fighting to care for herself, “I can honestly say fighting cancer was easier than fighting Phoenix.”

Remember, these are employees of the federal public service, which offers better pay and benefits than many if not most Canadian workplaces – thanks, in part, to strong unions.

That’s why one of the key demands of our members at the bargaining table this year is that the federal government do better as a model employer by agreeing to improve parental, compassionate care, critical illness and domestic violence leave.

If Canada is to compete on what really matters in the global economy, it should be on what matters most to working families. (It’s no coincidence that European countries with enviable parental leave provisions, most notably Sweden and Denmark, are also among the countries with the lowest levels of income inequality in the world.)

Setting a good example for other employers and jurisdictions (such as Ontario) should be no less a priority for our federal government than it is for parents struggling to raise resilient children in an age of ever-diminishing expectations. It can’t be done on last year’s budget.

Until every working Canadian parent can be assured they and their families will no longer suffer financial hardship due to unpaid time caring for a critically ill or dying family member, until parents have the top-ups to make extended parental leave the real improvement to work-life balance it was intended to be, and until domestic violence is no longer the scourge on some families that it is, Canadians will need to rely on Canada being a model employer and showing the way.

Debi Daviau is president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), which represents approximately 60,000 professionals across Canada, most of whom are employed by the federal government.

This article was originally published in the National Observer by President Debi Daviau.