What to do if you're fired on maternity leave

Think your job is securely waiting for you as you coo with your baby on parental leave? Tammy Sutherland discovered that such ignorance does not equal bliss.

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One day last November, my almost-10-month-old daughter, June, looked right at me and clearly said, “Mama” for the first time. By the next day, that would be the only current job title on my resumé.

Yes, I got fired on maternity leave. Cue the sounds of shock and dismay, the cries of “That’s illegal!” In fact, what happened to me was completely legit, catapulting me from leisurely afternoon walks with my baby to anxiously hunting for jobs and updating my LinkedIn profile while she spent longer and longer stretches in her exercise saucer. It also made me realize that my perception of maternity leave as a protected, sacred time was completely naive.

Let’s get the facts straight: A company can’t hand you a pink slip because they prefer the person they hired to cover your leave. Nor can they decide that you’ll no longer be a dedicated employee because you’ll be doing the daycare dash every day at 5 p.m. But they can downsize or eliminate your job altogether, which is what happened to me. The content agency where I’d worked for seven years significantly cut back on staff. My position no longer existed and there was no equivalent job for me within the company.

Betty Psarris, a lawyer who specializes in employment and labour issues at the Toronto law firm Turnpenney Milne, explains that, generally, you’re entitled to return to your original job or a comparable position with the same pay rate and level of responsibilities after you take maternity or parental leave. However, termination can be completely above board during that time, provided that it has nothing to do with the fact that you’ve had a child and are taking time off to care for that child.

While my dismissal wasn’t performance-related, it was still a blow to my ego, and it also threw a major wrench into my family’s financial future. The cherry on top was how all of this tension permeated the last weeks of one-on-one time with my baby.

Fortunately, I received severance pay (which is compensation because my job had been “severed”) and an extension of my benefits until the end of the severance period or until I found another job, whichever came first. Psarris explains that while the rules are different in each province, severance pay depends on your employment agreement, how long you’ve been employed with the company and how big the company is. For example, in Ontario, the company must have a payroll of at least $2.5 million and you need to have been an employee for at least five years to qualify for severance, although some companies will choose to extend the practice to employees that haven’t been there as long. (Minimum requirements are determined by each province’s legislation.)

However, in BC, as explained by Vancouver-based employment lawyer Jessica Burke, severance minimums are based entirely on an employee’s length of service. They’re entitled to one week’s severance after three months, two weeks’ after 12 months, and three weeks’ after three years, with an additional week for every year beyond that to a maximum of eight weeks. In both provinces, any vacation days owed from before your leave, or accrued during it, must be paid out. Depending on company and provincial regulations, your severance payout can be delivered in a lump sum or biweekly, like a paycheque. (If you feel the severance you’ve been offered doesn’t meet the requirements, or the clauses in the contract you’re being asked to sign are unclear, it’s best to consult with a lawyer.)

For a variety of reasons (including my sanity), we had opted to keep our three-year-old daughter, Violet, in daycare during my “year off.” It was a choice that made things tight financially, and we’d dipped into our RRSPs to stay afloat, so a chunk of my severance was automatically earmarked to repay that withdrawal. We immediately debated taking Violet out of daycare, but trying to look for a new job while entertaining a busy preschooler and a newly mobile baby seemed like mission impossible. And if I found work quickly we’d suddenly have to locate two child-care spots—a task comparable to finding two needles in a haystack where I live—rather than holding on to Violet’s current spot and having priority placement for June.

After my dismissal, my first call was to Service Canada to determine how my severance package would affect the employment insurance (EI) payments I was receiving while on leave. Yes, those biweekly parental leave payments are considered special benefits of the same program as EI. So even though I had this lovely notion that the government was supporting me while I spent a year nurturing my child, I was actually just collecting the monies I’d paid into the system over the years.

As with regular EI, any cash you earn while receiving benefits has to be reported. So when you contact them to report your termination and any severance pay, they will essentially pause your EI payments for the corresponding number of weeks you’re receiving severance and your EI will start up again afterward. An example: You’re entitled to a combined 50 weeks of maternity and parental leave in Canada, but let’s say that 25 weeks into your leave you get a severance package equalling five weeks of work. Your government payments would stop for five weeks while you receive the severance pay and then start up again for the remaining 25 weeks. (This will vary if you have extenuating circumstances, such as a hospitalization or if you serve in the military.)

Sounds simple, but there’s one little snag: At the end of those 55 weeks, you’re not eligible to receive any further EI until you find a new job and work for the required number of hours in your area to qualify for benefits again. (In BC, for example, you would need to work 700 hours—equivalent to 40 hours a week for 17½ weeks.) So if you do receive a termination notice, the “nap when the baby naps” advice no longer applies; that could be your only time to scour job boards, reconnect with professional contacts and polish your resumé. According to Employment and Social Development Canada, in 2012 it took unemployed Canadians who were looking for work an average of 20.2 weeks to secure a new job. You’ll need to wrap your head around the prospect of cutting your leave short if you do land a new gig.

Since my notice came so close to the end of my leave, I opted to negotiate with my former employer to delay my termination date until the end of my 50 weeks, so when my government benefits stopped, I then collected my lump-sum severance package. I wanted to be free to earn some extra money part-time while looking for a full-time job without the hassle of reporting any weekly earnings to the government.

Which is what I’m still trying to do, when I’m not beating myself up over our poor planning. Given the instability of the economy, maybe we should have sought out a less-expensive, part-time daycare situation for our eldest, or kept her home altogether. Maybe we shouldn’t have defaulted to ordering pizza so often that the delivery guy got to know our names. Or maybe we just should have prepared a proper budget that had us living within our mat-leave means rather than our two-full-time-income means, so that losing my job wouldn’t have put us in such a panicked situation.

The end of my maternity leave was less about waiting for June to take her first steps and more about figuring out my next career step. But just as she will eventually learn to walk and then run, I’m confident that I’ll find my stride, too. In the meantime, just call me Mama.

How to stay work-savvy

Before you go on leave:
* Send your professional contacts and copies of performance evaluations and other relevant material to your home computer.

* Update your resumé while you’re currently performing the job so you don’t forget any details about your day-to-day responsibilities and accomplishments.

While on leave:
* Stay connected with your manager and colleagues so you’re privy to the latest company news.

* Be active on social-media-networking sites where you can make new professional connections.

* Cultivate friendships with other neighbourhood parents on leave, in case you need last-minute child care.

If you’re negotiating severance, watch out for clauses that:
* Stop you from earning other money during the severance period.

* Require you to pay back the “unused” portion of the severance if you find a new job within the severance period.

A version of this article appeared in our September 2014 issue with the headline “Fired on mat leave,” pp. 58-60.

Read more:
Why going back to work doesn’t suck as much as you think it will
Why maternity leave matters
After maternity leave: A diary of my first day back at work

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