As a third year of COVID-19 looms, many workers find themselves once again marooned at home, trying to keep up with work, taking care of children who are online schooling — and collapsing under the physical and emotional demands of it all.

By the end of 2020, about a third of organizations had seen an increase in disability leaves, said Paula Allen, global leader of research at human resources services and technology company LifeWorks (formerly Morneau Shepell). Requests for unpaid leaves of absence had almost doubled.

Experts say even more requests for short- and long-term disability are likely as the pandemic drags on — but that many people are intimidated by the prospect of taking an official leave of absence.



Short-term disability leave is usually taken for medical reasons, including mental health reasons, said Andrew Caldwell, HR advice manager with Peninsula Canada.

“Mental or physical, a disability is a disability, or a medical issue is a medical issue,” Caldwell said.

So what exactly is short-term disability leave, and what benefits can you expect to receive while you’re off?

Caldwell said your employer can’t ask you for your medical diagnosis, but they do require proof that a doctor or health-care provider has determined that you require time off for medical reasons, whether it’s a week, a month or more.

Usually the employer will require an estimated date of return, he said, though you can extend your leave beyond that, with medical proof, if needed.

Many workers have access to some form of short-term leave, whether it’s through their employee benefit plan or through an unpaid leave during which they can claim Employment Insurance sickness benefits.

Any worker who does not pay into EI, such as a gig worker, has only the COVID-19-specific benefits to lean on: the Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit, the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, and the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit. At present, the maximum weekly payouts for the lockdown benefit is $300 before deductions, while the sickness and caregiving benefits pay up to $500 before deductions.

For many employees, short-term leave will be unpaid by the employer, said Caldwell, as employers rely on EI’s short-term benefits to fill in the gaps.

After a certain number of months, usually six, you may be eligible for long-term disability through your employer-paid benefits which requires further medical documentation and usually pays from 60 to 70 per cent of your regular income, said Toronto employment lawyer Andrew Monkhouse.

Some employer-paid benefit plans do cover short-term leave, paying you a certain portion of your salary while you recover, said Caldwell.

But fewer and fewer companies are offering paid short-term leave, said Monkhouse, especially small companies, because EI sickness benefits will cover up to 15 weeks at 55 per cent of your earnings, up to a maximum of $638 a week.

To apply for EI sickness benefits, you’ll need medical documentation to show that you’re unable to work, plus a record of employment from your employer, said Monkhouse.

If your benefit plan includes paid short-term leave through an insurance company like Sun Life or an HR services firm like LifeWorks, you won’t need a record of employment, as you will get a portion and possibly all of your salary while you’re off.

“For a lot of people, the real value is in the long-term disability plans that they have, insofar as those plans cover people with a lot less in limitations than many other support systems,” Monkhouse said.

Monkhouse agrees that there will be a rise in short-term and long-term leave in the coming weeks and months, both of which he believes are underutilized. Unpaid leaves, he said, will also become more common.

The rules vary depending on your industry, but generally, employees have the legal right to take unpaid leave for an illness or disability, said Monkhouse — under the human rights code, there’s no limit as long as your illness can be considered a disability, which is a broad definition.

“It has to just be a reasonable accommodation and it can’t be an undue hardship on the employer,” he said. “But an unpaid leave has a fairly high standard of being an undue hardship, given the fact that it’s unpaid.”

For parents especially, yet another period of working from home while dealing with virtual schooling may be the last straw, said Monkhouse.

But even if you’re not yet feeling sick to the point of being unable to work, he advises getting to know what relief is available to you now.

“A lot of people who are burned out don’t necessarily know their options, and it’s better to know about those options sooner rather than later,” he said.

Financial planner Janet Gray agreed that you should find out what’s available to you before hitting the breaking point.

She also noted that there’s a COVID-19-related caregiving benefit available for parents who don’t qualify for short-term disability leave.

If you are taking leave, Gray recommends talking to your employer about whether you can keep paying into your benefits plan in case you need that coverage while you are off.

Since what you get from short-term leave pay or EI won’t be as much as your normal income, it’s important that you go through your expenses and see what you can trim while you’re off, such as savings contributions, gifts, takeout food and other extra costs.

“Prioritize needs versus wants,” Gray said.

If you find yourself coming up short financially, it’s better to dip into your savings than rack up debt, said Gray. Your tax-free savings account (TFSA) is the best option for this, followed by your registered retirement savings plan (RRSP).

Once you’ve returned from leave, keep your expenses trimmed for a little while longer while you catch up on the savings you missed, said Gray.

“You want to still have some (budgeting) guidelines to help you to recover.”

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