Feds keeping an eye on leave for domestic violence victims in Manitoba, Ontario

Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour MaryAnn Mihychuk answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 14, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA – Mary Daoust has seen it all too often: women who stay in a dangerous relationship for fear of being unable to pay the bills or of getting fired amid the ensuing personal tumult.

“They should not be penalized for living in abuse,” said Daoust, executive director of Minwaashin Lodge, an Ottawa-based aboriginal support centre that runs a 21-bed shelter for First Nations, Metis and Inuit women and children who are fleeing abuse.

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Doust welcomes ideas like the new legislation Manitoba passed this year, which allows victims of domestic violence to take time away from work – including five paid days – to benefit from services that can be hard to access outside weekday hours.

“It definitely would give them some breathing room and it would definitely give them the opportunity to take care of what is most important, and that’s their families.”

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Manitoba is currently the only jurisdiction in Canada with such a law, although a private member’s bill – expanding the scope to include victims of sexual violence and allowing for related accommodations such as reduced hours or a transfer to a new location  – has also been introduced in Ontario.

Now, there are signs the federal Liberal government is also interested in the idea as part of a broader campaign promise to make it easier for federally regulated workers to formally ask their employers for more flexible working conditions.

A briefing note prepared for Labour Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk on March 29 reveals the department was paying close attention to the new Manitoba leave, known as Bill 8, and Ontario’s Bill 177, which was introduced by New Democrat MPP Peggy Sattler.

“While not applicable to workers under federal jurisdiction, some elements of Bill 177 (e.g. reasonable accommodation) are in line with a federal commitment found in your mandate letter,” said the memo, which The Canadian Press obtained under the Access to Information Act.

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Mihychuk was not available for an interview Tuesday. But her mandate letter asks her to “amend the Canada Labour Code to allow workers to formally request flexible work arrangements from their employers and consult with provinces and territories on the implementation of similar changes in provincially-regulated sectors.”

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Josh Bueckert, a spokesman at Employment and Social Development Canada, said officials have contacted the Manitoba government to learn more about the new measure, including reaction from stakeholders.

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He said the department also highlighted the idea in a discussion paper about flexible work arrangements for the federally regulated work sector as part of consultations with Canadians this spring.

Matt Pascuzzo, a spokesman for Status of Women Minister Patricia Hajdu, said she would be working with her cabinet colleagues, including Mihychuk, to ensure many options, including flexible work arrangements, are considered as part of a promised federal strategy on gender-based violence.

Jennifer Howard, the former NDP legislator behind the Manitoba bill, suggested the federal government could allow those using the unpaid portion of the leave to claim benefits under the employment insurance program.

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William Gardner, chair of the Manitoba Employers Council, said he has concerns about the burden the provincial legislation places on the employer, but added that getting the federal government involved through the EI regime, following the model of compassionate care leave, would be one way to alleviate it.

Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union, said she was fortunate to have an understanding employer when she asked for time away to deal with her own experience with intimate partner violence, and was back at work – having secured a restraining order, custody of her children, her home and her vehicle – six days later.

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She said her late mother was not so fortunate, as she was forced to leave her job when her boss denied her a similar request after she fled her violent home for a shelter with five of her children.

“(Bill 8) absolutely takes the luck of the draw out of the situation,” she said.

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