New law lets Albertans take time off work to care for critically ill loved ones

Albertans with a critically ill loved one will no longer have to make the heartbreaking choice between keeping their job and caring for their family member.

Changes to province's Employment Standards Code went into effect Jan. 1

Amanda Jensen and her son Jake. Amanda was let go from her job after she asked for compassionate care leave to support her son, who has leukemia. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

Albertans with a critically ill loved one will no longer have to make the heartbreaking choice between keeping their job and caring for their family member.

On Jan. 1, changes to the province's Employment Standards Code came into effect that allow employees to take a compassionate care leave to care for gravely-ill family.

Amanda Jensen's seven-year-old son Jake was diagnosed with leukemia in 2016, so she applied for compassionate care leave from her job with the Lethbridge Lodging Association.

"My employer denied my request and terminated my employment," Jensen told CBC News.

"I was faced with tremendous uncertainty in every aspect of my life which put a great deal of stress on my family."

Her employer said she wasn't eligible for leave because she had only worked at the company for nine months, not one year, which was required by labour laws at the time.

"Having a child diagnosed with a critical illness is most parents' worst nightmare and we just don't need the added stress of not being protected in the workplace at the same time," Jensen said.

The Ministry of Labour invited Jensen to consult on the new legislation.

Under the new amendment, which came into effect on Monday, employees are eligible for leave after 90 days.

Eligible for up to 27 weeks of leave

Unpaid leave was extended to 27 weeks, which can be split into multiple instalments of at least one week in length.

The length is the same as the length of employment insurance Canadians can receive while on compassionate care leave, plus one week to account for the EI application waiting period.

"Alberta didn't have sick leave, Alberta didn't have bereavement leave and a lot of people were surprised because of course many employers provide these leaves already, but it wasn't there at the minimum and the minimum is what lots of vulnerable Albertans rely on, and so a lot of Albertans were falling through the cracks," Labour Minister Christina Gray said.

Alberta Labour Minister Christina Gray says the new changes to the Employment Standards Code are significant. (CBC)

The government also introduced new unpaid leaves of varying lengths for personal and family responsibility, long-term illness, bereavement, domestic violence, death or disappearance of a child and a half-day leave for those attending citizenship ceremonies.

Employees are eligible for the compassionate care leave if they are caring for a family member, which the government defines as the following relationships:

  • Spouse or partner
  • Children (and child's partner/spouse)
  • Current/former foster children or wards (and their partner/spouse)
  • Parents, foster parents, step-parents, guardians (and their partner/spouse)
  • Siblings, half-siblings, step-siblings (and their partner/spouse)
  • Grandchildren, step-grandchildren (and their partner/spouse)
  • Grandparents, step-grandparents
  • Aunts, uncles, step-aunts, step-uncles (and their partner/spouse)
  • Nieces, nephews (and their partner/spouse)
  • Loved ones that the employee considers to be a close relative
  • Family members of the employee's spouse or partner

To be eligible, employees have to provide their employer with a medical certificate that states that their family member needs care or support, and that they have a serious medical condition and a significant risk of dying within six months.

And, to prevent employees being left in Jensen's situation, workers can't have their employment terminated while on leave unless the reason is unrelated to the employee's leave. 

Jensen is ecstatic when she thinks of the impacts the changes will have on families like hers.

Jake still has 2.5 years of chemotherapy treatments to go, but the support Jensen has received for sharing her story has helped her stay optimistic on their long road ahead.

"Honestly I have goose bumps right now," she said.

With files from Lucie Edwardson