Bereavement is the period of grief and loss that people experience when they lose someone they were close to. The bereavement process is different for everyone, but a universal is that someone who just experienced a loss will need support and understanding from their employer.
What is Bereavement Leave
Bereavement leave, also known as compassionate leave, refers to a policy that allows employees to take time off following the death of a loved one to mourn and recover from the experience. Employees may need to make immediate arrangements for funerals or celebrations of life, notify family and friends, attend local or out-of-state gatherings, undergo counseling, and handle the estate of the loved one. Having a bereavement policy published in the company handbook will help guide managers and employees through the process. It is permissible to ask employees to follow the company guidelines for requesting leave and tracking time away from work.
Federal versus State Mandates
There is no federal requirement for an employer to provide bereavement leaveand only a few states have a mandatory requirement. Absent a state mandate, most employers provide between 3-5 days bereavement leave for the loss of an immediate family member. Some of the state required policies are as follows:
- Washington’s Paid Family and Medical Leave Act makes up to seven days following the death of the employee’s child if employee would have qualified for medical leave under the existing PFML law for the birth of that child. Washington also mandates 3 days’ paid leave for the loss of family members in addition to any paid leave the employee has accrued.
- Oregon’s Family Leave Act requires up to two weeks of unpaid bereavement leave although employees are permitted to use any accrued paid leave for bereavement purposes. This law applies to employers with 25+ employees who have worked an average of 25 or more hours per week for the 180 days prior to the request for bereavement leave.
- Illinois’ Family Bereavement Leave Act is similar to Oregon requiring up to 10 unpaid days off following the loss of a “covered family member” but limits its application to employers with 50+ employees. Covered family members include children, stepchildren, father-in-law, mother-in-law, grandchildren, grandparents, parents, stepparents, domestic partner, spouse, or siblings.
- Maryland’s Flexible Leave Act requires employers with 15 or more employees who provide paid leave to allow employees to use that accrued paid leave to care for an immediate family member who is ill or for bereavement leave upon the death of an immediate family member.
- California’s Family Rights Act requires employers with 5 or more employees to provide up to five days of unpaid bereavement leave upon the death of a family member. The five days is provided as an additional form of protected leave separate from the 12 weeks of permitted leave previously provided under the California Family Rights Act.
FMLA and Bereavement Leave
The Family Medical Leave Act, also known as FMLA, provides job and benefits protection; however, bereavement is not an eligible condition for job or wage protection. FMLA generally covers private employers that have 50 or more employees in a 75-mile radius and to be eligible an employee must have worked for at least 1,250 hours over the previous 12 months. FMLA does not specifically provide bereavement leave; however, Department of Labor statements and legislative history indicate a miscarriage is classified as a “serious health condition.” As a result, both miscarriage and stillbirth should be eligible for FMLA leave if the birthing person is unable to work because of her own “serious health condition” (e.g., physical recovery from miscarriage and/or labor and delivery, emotional distress, depression, anxiety). Paternal coverage may be extended if the spouse is caring for a loved one with a serious health condition.
General Considerations for Your Policy
If you intend to adopt a bereavement leave policy, be sure that your policy is clear, fair, and consistently applied.
- Clearly define which losses are covered by your policy. Be specific when you identify immediate family members, other relatives, close friends, and other non-familial ties.
- If you are going to require documentation, be sure to include the specific items that will be satisfactory in your policy to avoid issues when a request for leave is presented.
- Consider whether to add pregnancy related losses such as miscarriage, failed in vitro fertilization (IVF) or other associated losses to your bereavement policy or to include them in a medical leave policy.
- Consider whether to provide paid or unpaid bereavement leave.
- Consider whether to allow the employee to take accrued sick or vacation days as part of or in addition to bereavement leave.
- While 3 days is usually sufficient to take care of the immediate requirements arising from the loss, it is wholly inadequate to account for the actual period of grieving or the impact on other family members. While not required, employers should consider the benefits of offering temporary flexible work arrangements consistent with the needs of the business. Allowing such accommodations as remote work, reduced hours, or a different schedule that allows the employee to be able to provide support to other family members can provide significant morale benefits and is likely result a higher quality of work from the impacted employee.
- Perhaps most important is to maintain contact with the employee to gauge when they will be ready to return to work.
Lasting Effects of Loss
Feelings of grief and bereavement can extend for months after a loss so managing bereavement can be a sensitive issue. Offer sympathy and let the employee decide which details they want to share and to whom. If available, direct employees to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) which usually have associated counseling services to help manage grief, stress, and family matters. After returning from bereavement leave, employee may experience productivity declines, lose focus on work, or feel distracted when emotions well up. You can foster company loyalty by giving employees needed support and understanding. As an employer, aim to treat employees fairly and with empathy so that your policies foster loyalty and productivity.
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