Federal workers who experience pregnancy loss, whether it’s a miscarriage or a stillbirth, may soon be entitled to paid leave, according to a measure in the Liberals’ 2023 budget.
Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland tabled the 255-page document Tuesday, and in it was a proposal to amend the Canada Labour Code and create a new leave for federal workers who experience pregnancy loss.
The leave would also apply to parents planning to have a child through adoption or surrogacy, the budget states.
“This measure will provide better labour protection for approximately 955,000 federally regulated sector workers, particularly women, by ensuring they have access to the time they need to recover from the physical and psychological trauma resulting from a pregnancy loss,” the federal government stated on its website.
While parents who have experienced pregnancy loss and experts who spoke to Global News say the measure is a step in the right direction, they say it doesn’t go far enough.
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Michelle La Fontaine, a program manager of the Pregnancy and Infant Loss (PAIL) Network at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, said she has “mixed emotions” about the proposal as it still leaves out so many Canadians.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction, but the scope is so narrow that I don’t see it as a win for bereaved parents,” she said. “I think families that will learn about this will feel very disappointed that it doesn’t apply to them, as it’s something that is tied to an employer.”
La Fontaine experienced a pregnancy loss with her twins at 20 weeks gestation. She said she had exhausted her bereavement and sick time and had to go back to work within three weeks — even though she knew she was not ready.
She ended up “suppressing her grief” during work hours, which felt unsafe for many parts of the day.
“I would be driving home and I was barely able to see. I was driving through my tears trying to get home,” she said.
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Roughly 15 to 25 per cent of Canadian pregnancies end in miscarriage, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
There are two main types of pregnancy loss: miscarriage and stillbirth. Most miscarriages happen in the first eight weeks, while stillbirths typically occur after 20 weeks of gestational age.
Bleeding, cramping and lactating are all physical symptoms a woman can experience after a pregnancy loss, explained Dr. Douglas Wilson, president of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (SOGC).
And it’s not just physical symptoms, the mental toll of a pregnancy loss can be even greater, he said.
“The issue of pregnancy loss … is that each couple or each person reacts so differently to these losses. There are people who lose a pregnancy, and the miscarriage is just as impactful to them as it would be if the baby was lost, either before term or after term,” Wilson told Global News.
He believes it’s important for the person or couple to have a choice on whether they should take time off, adding that fathers are also impacted by pregnancy loss, so both maternal and paternal leave need to be considered.
What are the current leave options for pregnancy loss?
Currently, Canada’s Employment Insurance program (EI) provides some benefits for parents experiencing pregnancy loss — but they only apply to employees who have banked enough hours (at least 600 hours of insurable employment during the qualifying period).
Parents who experience a pregnancy loss before the 20-week mark may be able to receive sickness benefits under EI (with a doctor’s note). And if there is a pregnancy loss after 20 weeks, parents may be able to receive maternity benefits.
Both sickness and maternity benefits last for up to 15 weeks. Those benefits do not include paternal leave.
If an employee does not qualify for EI, some provinces, like Alberta, provide 16 weeks of unpaid maternity leave to a parent who has experienced a pregnancy loss within 16 weeks of the due date, and Ontario gives 17 weeks of unpaid leave to those who’ve experienced the loss within 17 weeks of the due date.
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Prince Edward Island goes a step further and does not set any conditions on the length of a pregnancy before a worker is eligible for paid and unpaid leave.
Employees who experience a miscarriage or stillbirth are entitled to one day of paid bereavement leave (and two days unpaid) in the same manner as those who have lost an immediate family member, according to the province’s website.
Stephanie Gilbert, an assistant professor of organizational management at the Shannon School of Business at CBU, researches how workplaces support employees who have suffered a pregnancy loss.
The problem for Canadians dealing with pregnancy loss, she said, is that many have to sift through all the paperwork to figure out what type of leave they are entitled to.
She called the process “complicated” as it can be unclear whether a person is entitled to maternity leave, sick leave or even bereavement leave.
“Right after a pregnancy loss, you aren’t in a mindset where you can do that digging and research into what your options are,” she said. “And there are options, but it’s really unclear where pregnancy loss fits.”
For example, most bereavement leave policies do not state pregnancy loss, but only “loss of a child,” she explained, adding “it’s really unclear … does pregnancy loss count as a loss of a child?”
“Because people need leave urgently and they really don’t know their options,” Gilbert says,. “sick leave tends to be the most common form of leave people are taking.”
What would the federal proposal do for most Canadians?
Gilbert said there are still many remaining questions about the pregnancy loss proposal in the federal budget. For example, the proposal does not state how many days are covered or if the leave also covers employers who have had an abortion, such as a termination due to a medical reason.
In an email to Global News, a spokesperson for the federal department of finance said details of the proposal, such as how many days are included, “will be announced at a later time.”
Despite the remaining questions, Gilbert said she was “thrilled” to see pregnancy loss mentioned in the budget as “it’s something we tend not to talk about, it’s quite a stigmatized topic.”
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Gilbert and La Fontaine both agree that although the proposal is a great start, more Canadians should be covered — at any stage of gestation — when it comes to pregnancy loss and paid leave.
“Any kind of national bereavement strategy that would be able to be implemented for families across the country would be helpful,” La Fontaine said.
“To be able to know that not only would they be able to access paid leave, that isn’t tied to the number of weeks gestation, but that they could also access peer support to be able to find a community and feel less isolated in that grief.”