Supreme Court affirms pregnancy and parental leave distinct benefits

In a ruling apt to have
positive ramifications for working women across the country, the Supreme Court
has affirmed an arbitral finding that pregnancy leave and parental leave are
distinct benefits.


In 2012, the British
Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) brought a grievance against the Board of
Education School District No. 36 (the Board), alleging the Board discriminated
against birth mothers in its administration of employee benefits and was in
violation of  the Human Rights Code and of s. 15 of the Charter[1].

The collective agreement
allowed new parents and birth mothers to receive a supplemental employment
benefit (SEB) and to take a 17-week leave of absence. The employees entitled to
the SEB were biological and adoptive parents. This seemingly straightforward
SEB was fine until then Board interpretation complicated matters. Essentially,
the Board interpreted the benefit to encapsulate both parental and pregnancy
leave, lumping them each into the same 17-week period.

The union grieved,
alleging the Board’s interpretation discriminated against birth mothers, as it
did not sufficiently take account of the purpose of pregnancy leave. The
union’s position was that pregnancy and parental leave are distinct benefits
and birth mothers should be entitled to both.


At arbitration, the union
argued that the SEB benefits were distinct; the purpose of pregnancy leave was
to give mothers a chance to deal with the physical and psychological stresses
of pregnancy, while the purpose of parental leave was distinct from pregnancy
leave in that it was intended to allow new parents time to bond with their babies.

In essence, the union
argued that to combine the purpose of pregnancy leave and parental leave into
the same 17-week period deprived birth mothers of a benefit they were uniquely
entitled to benefit from. It was the union’s position that birth mothers should
be entitled to each benefit separately and to deprive birth mothers of the
distinction was discriminatory. The arbitrator agreed with the position of the
union. The Board appealed[2].

The British Columbia Court
of Appeal overturned the arbitral decision, and the union appealed up to the
Supreme Court.

Court ruling[3]

In a terse judgment, the
Supreme Court upheld the initial decision of the arbitrator. This is to say
that the Supreme Court ruled that pregnancy leave and parental leave do serve distinct purposes and that in
administering only one 17-week benefit period for both pregnancy and parental
leave, the Board did discriminate
against birth mothers.

Interestingly, the
Supreme Court also stated that the Court of Appeal did not give sufficient
deference to the arbitrator’s interpretation of the Collective Agreement. In
our view, this statement fortifies support for arbitral expertise in the
interpretation of collective agreements.


The take-away here is
that, moving forward, SEB clauses in collective agreements covering pregnancy
and parental leave may be interpreted as distinct benefits. This is good news
for working mothers and new parents. However, this case also provides a clear
signal to employers, and unions can expect employers to be more vigorous in
weeding out the distinction in benefits when it comes time to renegotiate a
collective agreement.

[1] [2012] B.C.C.A.A.A. No. 138 (QL).
Columbia Public School Employers’ Association v. British Columbia Teachers’
BCCA 405
2014 CanLII 12475.

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