Sixteen months ago I had a baby. Two and a half years ago my husband and I moved to Saskatchewan for my career. If you do the math on that one, I worked for 15 months before going on my year-long maternity leave. I knew that my employer was probably not going to be thrilled with the situation, but I was not about to put my family on hold forever for a job.
Leading up to my maternity leave there were a number of instances where my boss made it fairly clear that he did not appreciate the situation. Without going into great detail, he lessened my work load, didn't give me projects, and no longer acted like he trusted me to do my job. It was a difficult several months.
Then, six weeks before my leave was scheduled, my replacement started. This wasn't a big problem, as I assumed my boss just wanted to make sure she knew the ins and outs of everything. Two days later, though, she took over my full position, including my title and work space, and I was demoted to an overpaid receptionist, a position that I technically supervised.
After crying about it after work that night, I contacted HR. I was informed that what had happened was constructive dismissal and that, if I chose to pursue it, I would be eligible for severance. An employer can't demote you by changing your responsibilities or who you report to like that.
My boss was forced to apologize, but nothing changed. I decided to focus on the fact that I'd be having a baby instead of my frustration with my work. I told my boss in no uncertain terms that I expected to put back in my normal role day one my return, and he promised that I would have a job and be getting paid. I left it at that, aware that there would likely be a battle upon my return.
I popped into the office every month or so during my leave, not wanting anyone to forget who I was, and usually bringing baked goods. It's how I buy love. I was missing a very big organizational event and everyone was really busy, so I figured it was the least I could do. Banana bread and Timbits soothe the stressed out soul.
A couple months before my scheduled return, I phoned the office and spoke with the second in comand, confirming my return to work date, and requesting some end of summer holidays. She said she didn't foresee any issues, so I shot off an email to our HR guy to let him know about the conversation and asked to see if he knew what my job would look like upon my return. He had told me to email him around Thanksgiving and I still hadn't heard back from him in April.
HR replied back to my email the next day letting me know that he and my boss had been talking about what my return to work would look like and could I please come in for a meeting after hours the next Monday? Hello, red flags. I knew then that I would not be going back to the same job I had before.
I contacted a friend that works as an HR manager for some advice and to be sure I knew what my rights were going into the meeting. When you go on a maternity leave your employer is required to keep a position for you. It does not have to be the exact same one you were in before, but any shifts have to be lateral in pay and responsibilities. That said, sometimes employers will restructure employees out while on leave. Yes, it is allowed, but it's complicated and employers need to be careful how they do it. Is it good? No, but done properly and legitimately it is legal.
When I went into my meeting that Monday night they handed me a letter letting me know that, due to restructuring, they no longer needed someone to fill my position full time. When I asked what they would be doing instead, they said they weren't quite sure yet, but that the position would be eliminated the day I was scheduled to return. In the letter they offered me one month's salary, to forgive my outstanding moving expenses and maternity leave top-up, provide me with minimal moving expenses should I decide to move back to B.C. before the end of the year, and offered some financial help to work on my resume.
When an employer ends their relationship with you and you have outstanding return to service commitments with them, it's their job to eat those costs. They were offering me the bare minimum, with some moving expenses thrown in to sweeten the deal.
I countered their offer, requesting a severance amount more in line with the standard for such circumstances, indicating that my husband and I had relocated specifically for this job and the five year contract I had signed. I also noted that I would be unable to find equivalent work and wages before my return to work date.
In their response, they politely declined, stating that their offer was firm.
My second letter was not as friendly. I laid out the list of reasons why they got rid of me because I was pregnant and had a baby. I was clear and unemotional, using concrete examples, of which there were many. I reiterated my counter offer and informed them that if they didn't change their offer I would be getting a lawyer.
It took a couple weeks to hear back from them, as I later found out they had hire an employment lawyer to deal with another lawsuit against them from a former employee. I really didn't want to get a lawyer, knowing that they're expensive and that it would be months before I would see any money. I also didn't want to back down.
When the letter finally came, it was a big moment. My former boss wrote that my accusations were offensive and untrue, but that I was right about a legal battle being a waste of money, so they would give me everything I asked for. It was a big, victorious moment. I'm not saying I sang We Are The Champions, but I'm not saying I didn't.
A couple months later I had lunch with a former colleague from that office. She told me that my boss had hired someone to fill my eliminated position part time, and that she made significantly more money per hour than I had. I just laughed. Of course, right? Of course he hired someone else to fill the position that they didn't need, the one they kicked me out of due to restructuring.
After that I got in touch with a lawyer. We had a good meeting and he didn't charge me for the time on the initial consultation. It turns out that, while what my boss did is despicable (not my word), because I had signed their severance agreement in my right state of mind there wasn't much I could do. He also told me that he was impressed with the severance amount I negotiated and that, had I come to them in the beginning, chances are that I wouldn't have gotten as much and would have had to pay legal fees on top of that.
When I went to the lawyer I wasn't looking for more money I just wanted to know if there was anything I could do to ensure that what happened didn't get swept under the rug while my boss essentially got away with it. The only thing I can do is send a letter to the head of the board that hired my boss, but the lawyer didn't recommend it as a wise career move. I took his advice and haven't done anything more and, while the situation still rankles me a little, it's over.
The only thing I can do now is share what happened. I want to share my story and experiences because this happens much more often than we think it does, and a lot of women don't stand up for themselves. It's a lot easier to take the initial buyout and use it as an excuse to stay home longer with your kids. There is nothing wrong with that but make sure you're getting the best deal you can get. Don't let people walk all over you. And while you're at it, ask for a higher salary at your next job interview. Don't undervalue yourself. We are women, let's roar.
Remember, I'm Canadian and speaking from a Canadian perspective.