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Ashley Espinoza with husband and children, September 2020

NVision Photography

Ashley Espinoza is a former reporter based out of Belleville, Ont., with twin daughters who are almost five and a 15-month-old son.

I was 12 when I realized I wanted to be a reporter. I was 29 when my career in journalism was taken away from me.

Between those two points, I gave birth to two strong girls on the same day, Aug. 24, 2016. Being a mother to twins, I expected some challenges: sleep regressions, rigorous routines, potty training. What I did not see coming was that mothering twins somehow meant I would also have to hang up my reporter’s hat beyond my maternity leave because my employer, The Napanee Beaver, refused to accommodate me.

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If this does not make sense to you, you are not alone; I am still trying to make sense of it. And in January, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario affirmed what I already knew: My rights had been infringed by my former employer because of my family status.

According to the Human Rights Code – Family Status Law, employers have a legal obligation called the duty to accommodate. Accommodation is a way to balance an employee’s needs with those of the employer. “Persons in a parent-child type relationship have a right to equal treatment in the workplace,” the code states. “Employers cannot discriminate … because a person is caring for a family member.” Examples of accommodation under the code include providing flexible scheduling, allowing alternative work arrangements and creating a “flexible and inclusive workplace that benefits all employees.”

Knowing these laws, I had thought my employer of almost five years – Canada’s oldest independently owned weekly newspaper – would be understanding upon my return from maternity leave in 2017. My husband had himself reached an agreement with his employer to adjust some of his hours to contribute to our child-care needs. My editor had worked flexible hours after his parental leave, with no questions raised by upper management, and the sports reporter continued with his flexible schedule after the birth of his daughter just weeks after my twins were born – again, with no workplace issues. A staff member in the administration office even worked outside what the vice-president of the company described as regular office hours in order to accommodate her children’s school schedules.

Abiding by management’s return to work hours would have its challenges, to be sure; specifically, I would have to schedule my reporter’s hours while struggling to find full-time child care for my twins. (At that time, daycare licensing regulations allowed just two children under the age of two to be under the supervision of one daycare provider; just one year later, in 2018, Ontario loosened those restrictions to three children.) Still, I felt confident I’d be able to return to my job because of my right to accommodation.

But my position and career began slipping through my fingers under pressure from the VP, who refused to provide any of the legally mandated flexibility in my working hours.

The Napanee Beaver had come under new management by the daughter of the publisher/owner, who had become VP just before I took my maternity leave. Residing in Collingwood, Ont., almost four hours from the office, she could not comprehend that a reporter would have an unpredictable work schedule. She was adamant that, as a salaried employee, I keep regular office hours in addition to the usual evening and weekend hours that were my responsibility before my leave. She believed I had always kept regular office hours. This was not true.

My editor and I explained to her, on separate occasions, that covering local events meant irregular work hours. I proposed a schedule that would have set out evening hours three days a week, which would consistently make me available to cover events that typically fell under my responsibility; this would also have provided a solution to the daycare issues we were facing. My editor agreed with the solution I proposed, even saying that such a schedule would be preferable, as it would provide better coverage for the newsroom. I suggested doing this on a trial basis and reviewing the arrangement in a couple of months. I added that I was open to other suggestions my employer might have.

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But there was no response from the vice-president. After 46 days, I informed her of my rights under the Human Rights Code and the Employment Standards Act and asked to discuss the matter further to avoid miscommunication.

A week later – two days before my twins turned one – my employer finally responded with a letter disagreeing that my rights had been infringed. She failed to compromise or allow any accommodation that would help me return to work. She claimed, in writing, to have looked into the issue and determined for herself that the newspaper was not in breach of my human rights. She further described me as being “self-serving” in her response to my request that my rights be upheld and respected.

And so, in August, 2017 – when I should have been excitedly preparing to return to work by picking out an outfit for my first day back and tracking down story leads – I was grasping at straws in an effort to persuade my employer to let me return to my job. My husband and I reached out to more than 30 daycare providers to make arrangements for the hours the VP demanded. However, without any accommodations, I simply couldn’t be at work and provide care for my children at the same time.

I felt helpless. I found myself wondering: If it is my legal right to be here, why am I being effectively forced out the door? I remember asking my mother over coffee – and in tears – in her kitchen: “Did having twins really mean the end of my career?” Days later, still without daycare for my twins, I unwillingly submitted my resignation.

I had noticed, however, that while I was away on maternity leave, the newspaper hadn’t hired a temporary reporter to fill the vacancy. That fact, coupled with the issues I faced, led me to see where things were heading: The company wanted to eliminate my position altogether. That’s when I knew I had to stop asking for my rights and start demanding them. I began efforts to scrape together enough for a retainer for a lawyer who could help me fight for what was rightfully mine.

Three years after I initiated the fight for my human rights, Jessica Connell, the vice-chair of the tribunal, wrote in her January decision that she had “no hesitancy” concluding that I had been put in the unjust position of choosing between returning to work and caring for my children. “The parties were required as part of the accommodation process to jointly explore possible solutions to resolve this family/work conflict,” Ms. Connell declared. “It is not disputed that the respondent did not reply. The applicant was therefore put in the position of having to choose between returning to work and caring for her girls.”

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I had to learn the hard way why so many families choose not to pursue legal action against their employers. It took the tribunal 1,085 days to make a decision in my case. It cost me thousands of dollars and caused numerous sleepless nights and great stress. In the end, unfortunately, it also cost me my career. Rural life doesn’t lend itself to many opportunities in local journalism, so now I have an administrative job while freelancing in what little spare time I can find, just to keep my dream of being a writer alive.

Was it all worth it? Definitely. How could I raise my children to stand up for their rights and equality if I wasn’t prepared to do the same for myself? And Ms. Connell’s ruling is now case law and has already been relied upon to defend others in legal proceedings. But whether or not the fight was worth it – that’s not the point. The point here is this never should have happened – not to me, not to anyone.

I wish I could assure other parents that they do not have to worry about returning to work after taking leave. I wish I could say that my story was a “one-off,” that this simply would not happen elsewhere. But unfortunately I cannot. It does happen – so much more often than most people are willing to admit. And it will happen again.

Instead, I write this out of a sense of hope – that this case will point us toward a future where employers understand and respect the rights of employees trying to balance the demands of family life. With this knowledge, women can confidently advocate for their rights and know that they never have to choose between their careers and their families when they return to work.

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