© 2004  Karen Selick
Forced Compassion Is Unkind to Others
An edited version of this article first appeared in the August, 2004 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.



Forced Compassion Is Unkind to Others


Politicians love to have voters think of them as compassionate—especially when they can be compassionate on someone else’s nickel.  That’s why governments across Canada have been jumping on the “job-protected family leave” bandwagon. 

The feds started by amending the Employment Insurance Act to grant six weeks’ benefits, after a two-week waiting period, to employees who absent themselves from work to care for seriously ill or dying family members.  One by one, provincial governments have been introducing legislation requiring employers to hold jobs open for such employees, generally for up to eight weeks. 

The official hype for this legislation makes it sound as though nobody’s nickel is involved—as though there will be only benefits, and no costs.  Ontario’s McGuinty government press release, for instance, says job-protected leave “builds prosperity by creating a more positive, loyal and productive workforce for employers.”  It adds that “work-life conflict”, including absenteeism due to caregiver stress, costs as much as $3 billion annually in Canada.  The implication is that the new law will eliminate these costs, although there’s no explanation of how.  The statement is long on warm, fuzzy platitudes and short on logic.

No doubt about it—there are genuine costs involved in being the caregiver to a terminally ill relative.  But job-protecting legislation won’t eliminate these costs.  It will simply shift them to other people so they’ll be more difficult to tally up.

There are at least four categories of people who can expect to be burdened with additional costs.  First, there are unemployed job-seekers who would really like the chance to move into a permanent job vacated by a departing caregiver, but who will instead be faced with, at best, only an eight-week temporary opening.  These people may have histories just as heart-rending as the person taking compassionate leave.  They might even be returning to the workforce following an equally stressful and costly stint of caregiving—perhaps one too long to be protected by the legislation.  Why are they less deserving of a permanent job than the previous worker?  Why should they have to resume pounding the pavement after eight weeks?  Who says they‘ll be any less grateful for the job, or any less loyal or productive?

Second, there are the leave-taking employee’s co-workers.  It may be impractical or impossible to hire a temporary worker for an eight-week stint.  For instance, there probably aren’t a lot of trained air traffic controllers or emergency room nurses on file at the local temp agency.  This means the absent employee’s workload will have to be divided among his co-workers, who are probably already up to their eyeballs with their own workloads and “work-life conflicts”.   Why do they deserve the additional stress?  Might it not produce more of that dreaded absenteeism again?

Third, there are individuals outside the employer’s business who ordinarily deal with the absent employee.  Customers and suppliers generally prefer the continuity of dealing with the same salesperson, purchasing agent or accounting clerk who’s familiar with their history and their needs.  It’s bad enough that their service gets disrupted once when an employee goes on compassionate leave, but suppose the replacement turns out to be even better at the job?  Why should the client have to be disrupted a second time, switching back to someone who’s at best not up to speed on his file and at worst less competent?

Finally, there’s the employer.  Like the customers, he would bear the cost of not just one disruption but two.  He also bears the cost of advertising for, interviewing and training the temporary replacement, while still being required (under Ontario’s bill, at least) to pay for the absent employee’s benefit plans.  If he can’t find a temp, he has to bear the loss of productivity and morale resulting from overloading his other employees.  If by chance he finds a temp who’s better suited to the job than the person on leave, he’s still forced to give the job back to the less capable person after eight weeks

In large companies where hordes of assembly line employees perform exactly the same work, these costs may go almost unnoticed.  But in a small business, where every employee has a unique role to play, they might be substantial.  According to the Ontario government’s press release, fully 96 percent of Ontario businesses have fewer than 50 employees. 

And contrary to popular belief, many employers are human beings too, with parents and spouses of their own to get old and sick.  These employers will now have to shoulder not only their own family responsibilities but a portion of 50 other people’s besides.   Why do employers always get it in the ear like this?

If it were really true that job-protected leave is such a fabulous concept for employers, what makes politicians think that only they, and not employers, are smart enough to recognize this?  The reality is that employees whose jobs aren’t saved for them can always apply for the jobs more recently vacated by others taking family leave.  Holding an employee’s job open may or may not make sense, depending on the individual employee, the nature of the job and the firm’s size.  Employers and employees should be left free to negotiate this with each other on a case-by-case basis. 


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October 3, 2004