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What’s the issue?

Balancing work and family life has become a critical problem for many workers across Canada and in other countries. Excessive workload is causing huge problems for increasing numbers of workers trying to achieve that balance.

The solution is to reduce workloads but it is also to provide supports to workers with family responsibilities. But workplaces and government programs haven’t kept up with the radical changes in Canadian families.

About 70 per cent of women with young children are in the labour force. More than 15 per cent of families with children are lead by single parents, the vast majority of them women. Three-generation families grew 39 per cent between 1986 and 1996, even though they still represent only 3 per cent of all family households in Canada. More than half of these families are led by immigrants.

Statistics Canada’s 1991 Survey on Health and Activity Limitation shows that almost 18 per cent of Canada’s population has a disability, yet there is almost no accommodation of their work and family needs. Lesbian and gay individuals comprise about 10 per cent of the population, although complete figures won’t be available until after the 2001 Census.

Clearly, the family has truly been transformed from the ‘typical’nuclear family depicted in the 1950s. And the nature of work has changed dramatically.

Fewer people have the luxury of regular, nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday jobs. Three out of 10 workers do not have regular day-time hours. One out of four are on rotating or irregular shifts. Multiple-job holders are growing. An increasing number work part-time, casual or as temps. They piece together two or more jobs to meet family needs. In the past 10 years, the number of women holding more than one ‘paid’ job jumped by 45 per cent.

In 1998, 21 per cent of workers worked over 40 hours a week. About 10 per cent of Canadians worked unpaid overtime. About 9 per cent worked paid overtime. Recent surveys of CUPE members show that they put in longer hours because the services they provide are urgently needed. Yet budgets have been slashed and there are not enough staff to do all the work. Stress between work and family life results from these extra hours tacked on to an already long day.

Does it affect some members differently than others?

Married women between the ages of 25 and 44 with children have longer total work days than their male counterparts, says the 1998 Statistics Canada General Social Survey Overview of Time Use of Canadians. These women work 1.6 hours a day more on household and related tasks than men in the same age group. Female lone parents had the longest total work day including paid and unpaid work.

Some family responsibilities still go unrecognised in the work place. Definitions of the family that exclude same-sex partners mean that some workers can’t get family-related leaves. The federal parental unemployment insurance provisions have been revised to include same-sex couples, but not all provincial employment standards have been amended to include leave for same-sex couples.

Often families that don’t fit the formal definitions must patch together family time using vacation leave. Too often they are left short-changed because their relationships are not recognized. They face additional stress because their identification of family or their lives fall outside historical definitions. Many lesbian and gay members – and members that have changed their sex [transgendered] – face this problem.

Some employment standards legislation does not allow time off for holidays that are not recognized in a North American Christian tradition. Therefore some workers do not have their days of celebration acknowledged in the workplace. They must celebrate without holidays or time off apart from their vacation time.

Of the 2.3 million adults with disabilities aged 15 to 64 years, 44 per cent are not in the paid labour force. This compares to 20 per cent in the rest of the population. Workplaces need to be changed to accommodate the work, personal, and family needs of persons with disabilities.

How do we see it in our workplaces?

Balancing work with home and personal life was the greatest source of stress for 45 per cent of Canadians according to an October 2000 Ipsos-Reid poll. The poll also showed that 42 per cent of Canadians say their stress has increased over the past five years while 21 per cent say it has remained the same.

The balancing act gets more difficult during the child-rearing years. The 1998 Statistics Canada General Social Survey found that just over half of men and women between the ages of 25 and 44 felt that they did not have enough time for family and friends. Almost as many said they felt trapped in a daily routine.

The pressure of looking after aging parents has an impact on the work lives of one in four Canadians, according to a 1999 study by the Conference Board of Canada. As the aged population grows, more and more working Canadians are faced with caring for elderly relatives. One in four Canadians provide some form of care to an elderly relative. This further complicates the balancing act.

The General Social Survey data showed that in 1995, almost two-thirds (62 per cent) of all women who had held a paid job took at least six months off. That compared with about a quarter (27 per cent) among men. In the 1990s, almost half (47 per cent) of career breaks were family-related.

On average, each full-time paid worker in Canada lost 7.4 days of work in 1997 for personal reasons. This consisted of 6.2 days lost to illness or disability and 1.2 days lost to personal or family responsibilities. Excluding maternity leave, women took off an average 9.1 days in 1997, half again as many as the average 6.3 days for men.

Women with pre-schoolers lost almost three times as many days for personal or family responsibilities as did women in general. Men with pre-schoolers lost twice as much time as all men. The rate of absenteeism and interrupted work days are also higher for those who provide care to elders.

What can we do about it?

We can reduce the regular hours of work with no financial loss based on voluntary and negotiated reductions in work-time. The legislated work week should not exceed 40 hours and workers should have the right to refuse overtime beyond the 40-hour work week. Workers who work more than 100 hours of overtime a year should be compensated by time off in lieu of overtime, rather than pay. Unpaid overtime must end.

We must continue to fight for high quality, accessible, publicly funded child care and elder care programs. These must meet the needs of children, the elderly, and working people. We should not be forced to exploit other workers to meet family responsibilities.

In the absence of long-term solutions, job-sharing programs must respect workers’ rights. They must be voluntary with no reduction in full-time positions in the bargaining unit. There must be pro-rated benefits and pension coverage for job-sharers and established procedures to create and end such time-limited arrangements.

Language that includes all families must be used in legislative and collective agreement provisions. Collective agreements must reflect the needs of all families in the definitions and benefits. Many provinces still need to make changes to employment standards legislation to confer rights and benefits on all families.

Better unpaid leaves for family reasons must be established through employment standards. Most employment standards legislation provides for parental leaves that match the 35 weeks of parental benefits under Employment Insurance. However, most provinces have not yet recognized same-sex partners for the purpose of obtaining leaves as provided for in the EI legislation. This also must change.

Family responsibility leave exists only in a few jurisdictions and should be expanded. Ontario now provides up to 10 days of unpaid leave for family crisis, but it may be difficult to obtain unlike the more generous Quebec and British Columbia family responsibility leave provisions.

Bereavement provisions in employment standards don’t exist in every jurisdiction and too often define the family restrictively. Bereavement leave provisions continue to define family according to a 1950s model that no longer exists.

Improved paid and unpaid leaves for family reasons must be negotiated in collective agreements. The top-up for parental benefits should reflect the longer benefits of 35 weeks covered under EI. Right now, many of our agreements provide a top-up to the UI parental leave benefits but most agreements only provide for 10 weeks.

Collective agreement provisions for more paid and unpaid leaves relating to family matters can be negotiated. Provisions for leave relating to family responsibility should include the full range of family obligations. Such provisions should allow for paid days that are not linked to sick leave.

Benefits provisions must include all family and home life configurations so that all members are protected. For example, persons with disabilities often have benefit needs that go beyond the standard packages. Many transgendered members don’t have the benefits coverage necessary to meet their needs.

We need to study how work is organized with a view to making the workplace friendlier to families. For example, increasing staffing levels makes it easier for workers to deal with sudden family responsibilities. Work can be more easily absorbed in a workplace where there are enough staff, rather than the severely trimmed organizations that resulted from the budget cuts in the 1990s.

Is there contract language that will help?

Yes. Here are several examples of language that has been negotiated.

Simon Fraser University and CUPE 3338

Definition: When death or a serious illness strikes a close family member or close friend of an employee, up to five (5) days compassionate leave with pay may be granted at the discretion of the supervisor. This leave shall not be unreasonably withheld.

Oxfam Canada and CUPE 2722
19.09 Leave for Sick Children and Dependent Relatives

Employees with children and dependent relatives (defined as a relative of the Employee or her/his spouse or spouse equivalent who is financially dependent on the Employee by virtue of physical or mental disability or old age) are entitled to time off with pay when the children or dependent relatives are sick. Such time off is to total no more than ten (10) working days per year.

Workplace Safety and Insurance Board and CUPE 1750

16.01Justifiable Personal Reasons

In each of the following circumstances the employee will provide prior notice where practical, and if not practical, will notify the Manager as soon as it is.

  1. A leave of absence from work will be granted for justifiable personal reasons such as the employee’s marriage, religious holidays, sickness/injury in the immediate family requiring the employee’s presence.
  2. The Manager may approve a request for leave for other justifiable personal reasons….
  3. Where an employee who is granted a leave of absence under (a), (b) or
  4. above has sufficient attendance credits, the leave of absence will be with pay and charged against attendance credits. A leave will not be considered punitively in a performance appraisal.

Quebec health and social services employers and hospitals, with CUPE and other unions

[The union and the employer] hereby recognize the interdependent nature of the relationship between family and work. Further account shall therefore be taken by the parties of the need to reconcile family and work in the organization of work.

To this end, the parties to this agreement encourage the sectoral, regional and local parties, as the case may be, to better reconcile parental and family responsibilities with work responsibilities, in determining and applying working conditions.

They also negotiated improvements to maternity and parental leave provisions. These include:

  • Maternity Leave: For a woman who is not entitled to employment insurance, the employer pays an allowance for 12 weeks at the rate of 93 per cent of her wages.
  • Adoption Leave: Begins as soon as the parent takes custody of the child or travels outside Quebec for adoption purposes (following a placement order).
  • Paternity Leave: Granted to an employee whose child is stillborn if the birth occurred after the beginning of the 20th week of the pregnancy (new addition).
  • Extended Leave: Seniority is accumulated for pay purposes for up to 52 weeks of leave without pay or partial leave without pay, taken as an extension of maternity, paternity or adoption leave.

(The full text of these provisions can be obtained from CUPE Research or Equality.)

What success have we had in tackling this issue?

Quebec central bargaining committees have made the balance between family and work issues a priority. In doing so, they have won major gains in maternity and parental leave provisions. These include leaves for mothers who don’t qualify for benefits under EI. These benefits provide a goal for CUPE members in other provinces.

On the legislative front, CUPE has worked to protect and improve family leave provisions in employment standards legislation. CUPE has also been a leader in the fight for child care. Sign on for Canada’s Kids, a coalition of organizations including CUPE, is calling for sustained federal funding starting with $2 billion in the first year of a multi-year commitment. These funds will be used to develop high quality, accessible, publicly funded child care.

CUPE has been a leader in the fight for recognition of lesbian and gay families. We led the way on the recognition of same-sex partners in the collective agreement in every province. CUPE was also instrumental in changing the law on recognition of same-partners.

There is much more to be done, and CUPE has set the pace for helping its members find a safe and healthy balance between work and family life.


We need to make our workplaces friendlier to families. For example, increasing staffing levels makes it easier for workers to deal with sudden family responsibilities.

Work can be more easily absorbed in a workplace where there are enough staff, rather than the severely trimmed organizations that resulted from the budget cuts in the 1990s.

There is much more to be done, and CUPE has set the pace for helping its members find a safe and healthy balance between work and family life.