Child care is back, but do working parents have to send their kids?

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WATCH: The Quebec government announced $11 million in extra funding for day camp operators on Tuesday, to help offset the costs of hiring extra staff and other COVID-19 related expenses. Some camps, however, say they still won't be able to open, leaving some parents scrambling for alternatives. Global's Felicia Parrillo explains – Jun 2, 2020

Parents who’ve been juggling the demands of work, schooling and full-time child care for months may have been looking forward to the day their kids would go back to the classroom, daycare or summer camp.

But as provincial and territorial governments across the country gradually lift restrictions on schools and childcare centres, families may find the new reality tricky to navigate.

READ MORE: Canada looking at expanded funding for child care in post COVID-19 recovery

“Up until now, all a parent had to do was simply utter the word ‘childcare,’ and they could stay on leave,” says Lior Samfiru, an employment lawyer in Ontario and British Columbia.

With schools and child-care centres shuttered except for essential workers, employers had to make accommodations or allow employees caring for their children to be off work “no questions asked,” says Samfiru.

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There was also a straightforward case to claim the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), as the $2,000-a-month emergency federal benefit was clearly intended for parents who had to stop working due to a lack of child care options amid COVID-19, according to Samfiru.

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Coronavirus outbreak: CRA, Service Canada working to determine number of ‘actual’ CERB fraud cases – Jun 10, 2020

The reopening of schools and child-care centres, however, complicates things.

With Ontario and Nova Scotia set to be the last two jurisdictions to reopen of child-care settings in Canada in mid-June, many parents face a new conundrum.

For one, with some centres running at reduced capacity or financially unable to operate with the current public health restrictions, some families may struggle to find a spot for their children, Samfiru noted.

READ MORE: Children in Ontario group homes and foster care test positive for coronavirus

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But employees will be expected to make a “reasonable effort” to find child care arrangements, says Toronto employment lawyer Deborah Hudson.

This likely means looking for alternative arrangements if a family’s usual child care options aren’t available, adds Hudson, who suggests parents document their research by keeping emails and taking notes of any phone calls.

READ MORE: Outbreak of COVID-19 reported at Quebec daycares for essential workers: Ministry of Education

That kind of paper trail could also come in handy to demonstrate to the government that you’re still entitled to receive CERB, although Ottawa hasn’t yet made clear what proof of it will be looking for when verifying eligibility, says Samfiru.

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Still, while what’s considered “reasonable effort” has been the object of many legal battles, Samifiru is optimistic that working parents won’t be facing an excessive burden.

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“I would suggest that given the fact that we’re talking about a global pandemic and a unique situation, the threshold for ‘reasonable’ is going to be certainly low,” he says.

“This is not going to be the Spanish Inquisition.”

Parents should focus on having an open and transparent conversation with their employers, says Hudson.

READ MORE: Dozens of Canadian children treated for inflammatory condition possibly linked to COVID-19

And whether you’re asking for unpaid leave, working from home, a reduced shift or flexible hours, it helps to suggest the arrangement be revisited after a few weeks, she adds.

“If you ask for an accommodation for a few weeks to be reassessed, I think it’s more likely to be seen as reasonable,” she says.

This kind of flexibility also makes sense at a time when the situation is constantly evolving, Hudson adds.

Another issue facing parents is whether to send their children off to daycare, school or camp, even when they have the ability to do so.

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What options do you have once CERB runs out? – Jun 10, 2020

Families who have concerns because someone in the household suffers from a medical condition that can increase the risks linked to COVID-19 have a right to ask for accommodations, Hudson and Samfiru say. Both suggest obtaining a note from a doctor recommending that the children be kept home.

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But simply telling your employer you feel uncomfortable sending your kids back isn’t likely to be enough from a legal standpoint, both Hudson and Samfiru say.

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That, however, doesn’t mean working parents can’t try to ask for what they need anyways, Hudson says.

“Some employers are working with employees based on their comfort zone,” she notes.

Still, if your employer denies your request and you refuse to comply, you can be deemed to have resigned, both Hudson and Samfiru warn.

And resigning means giving up on any right to go back to work or, possibly, termination pay, says Hudson.

“At the very least,” she says, “get legal advice before you quit.”

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