As schools reopen across Canada, many parents remain uneasy about how they will balance their work and childcare obligations – especially since some students will be returning to class while others will be learning remotely.

This means cooperation between employers and employees will become paramount to navigating the new school year, some experts say. 

“With all moments of change, transparency and communication will win the day,” Louise Taylor Green, CEO of the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA), told BNN Bloomberg in an email.

“I encourage HR and CEOs to establish clear paths to communication and create an environment where parents feel they can share their struggles and will be supported and not reprimanded or judged.”

One firm that has tried to be flexible during the pandemic is the Canadian arm of professional services firm Accenture. Even though Accenture as a whole is in the process of reducing its global workforce, its Canadian business, which has approximately 5,000 employees, is giving parents some options as children head back to school.

“With the back-to-school season in mind, we are providing an additional 240 hours of backup crisis care between now and December 31. This program gives parents the option to be reimbursed up to $100 a day to have a caregiver of their choosing, such as an extended family member or a friend, come into their home to provide care,” Jeffrey Russell, president of Accenture Canada, said in an email.  

In addition, Accenture Canada is continuing to offer 80 hours of backup care per year for times when regular arrangements fall through.

Beyond what employers can offer during these complicated times, human rights legislation across Canada does provide protection to workers on the basis of family status, according to Janine Liberatore, partner at Hunter Liberatore Law.

“If an employee has to care for a child or parent because the child cannot attend school or daycare or suitable alternative care is not available due to COVID-19, then the employee may request a family status accommodation,” she said in an email.

“The accommodation can include a work-from-home arrangement. If that is not available, then an accommodation in the form of a leave of absence may be the appropriate solution.”

Liberatore also points to measures the federal government has now put in place to replace the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) that could become useful in some specific scenarios. These measures include: the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit (CRCB) for employees who are unable to work because they are caring for a child, dependent and/or family member due to COVID-19-related school or daycare closures, as well as the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB) for workers who are sick or must self-isolate because of the virus.

Employment lawyer John Hyde, who is founding partner at Hyde HR Law, agrees that collaboration between employers and employees to find common ground and practical solutions is especially important right now, considering that employees help drive the success of most businesses. As a result, he believes that smart employers will try to be as accommodating as possible.

At the same time, he said employees also need to be understanding of the employer’s position. He noted the practices we have gotten used to, and the way in which many companies operated previously, will not be the same when we eventually emerge from this pandemic – and that this could have bigger implications for workers.

“The one thing that the pandemic is teaching employers is how to cope with less, and do more with less. But that also means less employees,” Hyde said.

“Do not be surprised that, as this pandemic wanes, large organizations – banks, national and multinational corporations – will be shedding employee jobs. Those employees not willing to be reasonable during the pandemic, will likely be the first ones to go.”

Q&A: Top questions Ontario employment lawyer John Hyde has received from working parents

Q: I want my children to stay at home doing online learning and homeschool until it is safe. Can I demand that my employer allow me to work from home?

A: Working from home is not an automatic right. Before an employee can demand that he or she work from home for the purposes of childcare, the employee has to establish that all other options have been considered and/or has attempted to make alternative arrangements for childcare, without success.

-Employees have to remember that they too have to be flexible. These are difficult times, and employers and employees have to work together toward solving these problems.

-Some jobs are just simply not capable to be undertaken from the home.

Q: I have been working from home during the pandemic. My employer just called me in to work, before school starts. Can I refuse?

A: Possibly, however it depends on the circumstances. Part of the answer focuses upon whether the requirement to work from home was put into place as a temporary measure, or a permanent one. If the latter, such unilateral change may amount to a constructive wrongful dismissal. Additionally, the employee still must consider all available options for alternative childcare arrangements, before taking such position.

Q: If I send my children to school and they get sick can I:

  • Demand to work from home?

A: Yes, you can, but within limits. Are there other arrangements you can make? If not, subject to the nature of the job, employees do have this right due to protections under the Human Rights Code of Ontario. That aside, employers should always give careful consideration to assisting employees in this difficult time. If the employee can combine work and childcare, smart employers will permit it, at least on a temporary basis.

  • Take job-protected time off to look after my children?

A: Yes. Family medical leave under the Employment Standards Act of Ontario provides for job protected leave of up to 28 weeks in a 52-week period. Family caregiver leave is also available. Critical illness leave provides job protected leave for up to 37 weeks, to care for a minor child.