Thursday, September 8, 2011

In defense of compassionate care leave

Within the various commentary about the BCTF negotiations, some have chosen to criticize BCTF proposals in an attempt to discredit teachers and teacher bargaining. One of the proposals that has been particularly singled out is compassionate care leave.

Compassionate care leave is currently provided through the employment standards act and some unions have negotiated related provisions. It provides a leave for an employee to take care of a person who is terminally ill (a reasonable expectation of death within 26 weeks). The current employment standards act provides eight weeks of leave and if eligible, employees can collect employment insurance benefits for six of those eight weeks. The person being cared for must be a "family member", but the definition of family member includes a person or friend who "considers you a family member", such as a friend or neighbour.

As the government program notes: "One of the most difficult times for anyone is when a loved one is dying or at risk of death. The demands of caring for a gravely ill family member can jeopardize both your job and the financial security of your family. The Government of Canada believes that, during such times, you should not have to choose between keeping your job and caring for your family." (

Doctors agree that compassionate care leave has multiple benefits: "For most clinicians, compassionate care matters because it is fundamental to the practice of medicine, ethically sound, and humane," according to lead author Beth Lown, MD, medical director of the Schwartz Center and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "However, there is also strong evidence that compassionate care improves health outcomes and quality of life, increases patient satisfaction, and lowers health care costs. Particularly as our health care system faces such intense pressure to reduce costs, we must make sure that this critically important element of health care is not lost." (

There are calls for an expansion to the existing employment insurance scheme, to extend the leave and benefits to 26 weeks. This makes sense. After all, the program is designed for those who might die in 26 weeks time. It is a bit odd that eight weeks is available but no more. What do you do after those eight weeks? Chances are, the person you are caring for is even more ill after the eight weeks than before.

The proposal put forward by BC teachers is akin to the "top up" programs that many Canadians already receive for maternity leave. These programs provide a top up by the employer to the employee's EI benefits so that their pay is closer to what their salary normally is. They are designed to ensure that women and parents can have adequate time off to care for their very young children without a significant loss of income. Taken together with the Employment Insurance benefits, these programs help to even the playing field for parents with respect to income loss and child bearing/rearing. There is a benefit to the individuals but also to society, which benefits from the future earnings/production/taxes of the children. It is only a tiny portion of the vast cost of raising a child, but allows mothers and parents to ensure adequate care for the critical first year of life, without fear of losing their home or not being able to pay the bills.

The same rationale can be made for compassionate care leave. Those who are close to death and require care will end up somewhere in our social safety net. In the worst of cases, inadequate care might mean accidents and further complications to illness take place. In the event hospitalization is required, the costs far outweigh what a compassionate care program would cost. But even if palliative care or home care services are used, the overall costs are likely in excess of what a compassionate care program would be. Moreover, a close friend or relative is likely able to provide more time and attention in caring and the care can likely be done in a home environment.

Compassionate care leave is also a women's issue, just as maternity leave is. The Canadian Women's Health Network describes why: "Care in the home is women’s work. Women provide more than 80% of unpaid personal care for the elderly and for those of all ages with long-term disability or short-term illness. A survey found that three out of four unpaid caregivers were women between the ages of 50 and 65 -- that is, women in the prime of life who may already be juggling adolescent children, aging parents and a professional career." (

I am proud that I am part of an organization that is advocating for improvements like compassionate care leave. It is a progressive change that I hope is both successful and replicated by other workplaces. Just as the landmark strike by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers eventually led to maternity leave rights and benefits for all Canadian mothers and parents, I am hopeful that the union movement's involvement in pursuing compassionate care leave will result in legislative changes that benefit all Canadians.


  1. Thank you for an informative post on the rationale behind increasing the number of weeks of compassionate care leave and top up. I hope that when bargaining for top up, people whose family members are ill during the summer months will also be eligible. It came at quite a shock to me, while on maternity leave with baby #1, that I would not receive my top up during the summer months. Seemed quite unfair and I hope this changes. Baby #2 birth was "better timed".

    Teacher from Kamloops

  2. @Anonymous: A teacher in our district challenged that not only with our union but also with BCTF on the grounds that it was discriminatory. As a result, now, if applicable, women in our district will receive their top up during the summer. It was a long hard fight but she did it.

  3. If only the "harbingers of doom" (the media" would explain to their readers & viewers this tabled item in such a logical manner. But noooo, instead we have continued hysteria at the unreasonable demands of teachers.