Accommodating Family Status
Most employers are already aware that they have a legal duty to accommodate an employee’s disability, up to the point of undue hardship. With a number of recent Human Rights Tribunal decisions, however, employers are quickly learning about their legal obligation to accommodate employees on the ground of their “family status”.
What does “Family Status” mean?
The Ontario Human Rights Code prohibits discrimination on a variety of grounds, including “family status”. The Code defines “family status” fairly narrowly as the “status of being in a parent and child relationship”..... But the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal has given the term a very liberal interpretation... Over recent years, the protection has been extended to relationships with step-parents, same sex spousal-child relationships, foster parent relationships and pregnancy. In a recent case, the Tribunal extended the definition of “family status” even further to provide Code protection to adult children caring for their elderly or infirm parents.
What do you need to know?
As an employer, you need to know that employees are entitled to be free from discrimination in the workplace on the ground of their unique family status. This means that if a workplace rule or policy is having an adverse impact on an employee because of their child-care or elder-care obligations, there may be a duty to accommodate that employee up to the point of undue hardship. This would usually mean sitting down with that employee and engaging in a meaningful discussion with the goal of determining their precise needs. Once you understand the specific needs of the employee, you must then determine whether you can reasonably meet those needs...to the point of undue hardship.
Failure to accommodate an employee’s family status can result in awards of damages, without the necessity of proving any actual monetary loss.
As the law continues to evolve in this area, prudent employers will consult with their advisors to stay current with new developments.
If you have any questions about this or any other employment or human rights topic, please call or email us at any time.