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‘It was an unbelievable relief to be able to spend time with my father,’ says Allyson Blackmore of Toronto Hydro, who took five weeks of compassionate care leave to help care for him.Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

On a Sunday night in 2011, Allyson Blackmore got the sudden news in Toronto that her father had been diagnosed with lung cancer. She knew immediately that she needed to go home to Halifax. Ms. Blackmore, a human resources administrator with Toronto Hydro Corp., reached her work supervisor that night to explain. She flew out the next day to advocate for her dad's care and support her small, close-knit family.

Once she landed, Toronto Hydro's human resources department contacted her to explain the federal government's compassionate care program over the phone, including how to apply online to Service Canada. If employees are eligible, Toronto Hydro provides 95 per cent of an employee's normal base salary during the unpaid Employment Insurance waiting period of two weeks and then tops up payments for the remaining leave up to the maximum of eight weeks.

"It was an unbelievable relief to be able to spend time with my father," Ms. Blackmore said. "HR made sure that I knew what I needed to do, so I could just be there. I was receiving 95 per cent of my salary so I didn't have to worry about bills. All the last-minute flights were a financial burden because they were really expensive, so it was a huge help."

Compassionate care benefits work much the same way as EI maternity or parental leave. It was enacted by the Government of Canada in 2004 so employees would not have to quit or lose their jobs when called on to temporarily care for or support a gravely ill or dying family member.

Employees apply for approval while employers grant a leave of absence without pay for up to eight weeks. After a two-week waiting period, a maximum of six weeks of EI benefits are paid to employees who meet the eligibility criteria, which includes a letter from the attending physician saying that the individual concerned has a serious medical condition with significant risk of death occurring within 26 weeks.

Compassionate care top-up payments are an option that many Family-Friendly Top Employers are choosing to make to cover some or all of the difference between the payment received from EI and the employee's normal base salary. Generally, EI payments under this program amount to about 55 per cent of average insurable earnings to a maximum of $485 weekly.

Electric power distributor Toronto Hydro, the Catholic Children's Aid Society of Toronto (CCAS), Pfizer Canada Inc., a biopharmaceutical company in Kirkland, Que., and Saskatchewan Government Insurance (SGI) all provide employees with this top-up payment in varying degrees, from 70 to 100 per cent.

The initiative is relatively new for most companies – Toronto Hydro and Pfizer implemented their programs in 2008 and CCAS in 2009 – and allows employees to focus on family without additional concern. On the Canada's Top Employers list, approximately a quarter of employers offer a formal program for topping up compassionate leave, Mediacorp managing editor Richard Yerema said.

"In the past, we've seen staff try to cobble together their vacation or whatever credits they may have accrued to offset the time for someone they needed to care for," said Terry Daly, human resources director for CCAS. "This isn't about treating staff in a special way. It's about trying to enhance our service so we'll have staff who feel well being at work. In order to focus on your work, you need to know that things at home are okay."

Since their programs have been in effect, five individuals at CCAS and 10 at Pfizer have taken compassionate-care leave. Monica Warnell, Toronto Hydro compensation and benefits specialist, says the number of people who use it there varies per year, depending on employees' personal situations.

"I don't think people are reluctant to use it at Toronto Hydro," Ms. Warnell said. "The feedback is wonderful. People appreciate the opportunity to care for their family member knowing they're supported by their company. It decreases their personal stress while caring for their family member and strengthens their commitment to the company."

By splitting her compassionate care leave into two parts, Ms. Blackmore was able to spend three weeks with her father in the first critical period while he was mainly in hospital and then took two weeks later, during his treatments as an outpatient, for a total of five weeks. The second leave in April gave her precious time with her dad, to share the crossword puzzle every morning over coffee and to take a family trip to the cottage. Her father, Mike Blackmore, died in June.

"It was an irreplaceable family time," Ms. Blackmore said. "You're worried about taking that amount of time off work, but I never felt this would impact my career negatively. My employer helped rearrange the work and projects I had planned. The message I got while I was off was 'just worry about your family and we'll make sure that everything is taken care of here.' When I did resume work, I was able to be more focused because I had that time."

Ana Quadros, a parent support worker who has been with CCAS for 17 years, admits she was hesitant at first about using compassionate leave when her father, a widower, was hospitalized for congestive heart failure and vascular disease in March this year. The palliative care team at Toronto General suggested it to her, but Ms. Quadros, an only child, had never heard of anyone at work taking it before, although she knew the program existed. But after speaking to her supervisor, she found CCAS very supportive.

"The work we do is building relationships so I was a bit reluctant because of the kind of work that I do, but at the same time, I wanted to be there for my father," Ms. Quadros said. "The top-up to 70 per cent of my salary made a huge difference to me because I have kids and a husband as well."

Ms. Quadros took the full eight weeks allowed followed by some pre-planned vacation. In that time, she was able to make critical decisions about her father's care while he was in hospital and then arrange for caregivers once he was able to go home.

"When you're told your loved one has three months to live, you're grateful just to be there with him and spend every moment you can," Ms. Quadros said. "Reconnecting was a profound experience."

While her father has somewhat recovered, he is still fragile. Now back at work, Ms. Quadros says she would definitely apply again if needed. (In some provinces, a worker may reapply for the benefit again as long as the criteria is met again, including a new doctor's certificate stating that death is impending.)

"A lot of people may hesitate like I did to take so much time away from your job. However I had all the support from CCAS that I could possibly receive," Ms. Quadros said. "But it's difficult to just up and leave when you work with people. It's a long time away not knowing when you'll be back."