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Guide to bereavement leave for employers

Last updated

16 November 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Shawnna Johnson

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Let's face facts—the death of a loved one can strike without notice. While dealing with grief, legal, financial, and personal matters also demand attention. With all this to cope with, employees shouldn’t have to also deal with work-related demands.

Bereavement leave is a key way an employer can support a grieving employee. Let's dive into why it’s important and how it works.

What is bereavement leave?

Bereavement leave is time off for an employee who has lost a close family member. This allows them time to grieve, make funeral arrangements, and handle activities associated with their loved one’s passing.

What’s the difference between bereavement leave and compassionate leave?

It's common to use these terms interchangeably when referring to time off for grieving workers. But there is a significant difference.

Bereavement leave is specifically for workers who have lost a close family member. Compassionate leave isn't limited to death—it encompasses other compassionate reasons, such as caring for a terminally ill loved one.

Why is it important to provide bereavement leave?

A robust bereavement policy can attract workers since it shows you are a caring employer. Here are more reasons to offer bereavement leave:

  • Legal obligation: Offering bereavement leave, whether paid or unpaid, is required in some states and counties. Check the labor laws of your state.

  • Promotes mental and emotional health: Bereavement leave gives employees time to grieve and attend to matters associated with their loved one’s passing. It saves them the additional stress of having to juggle work responsibilities and a very stressful personal situation.

  • Promotes work-life balance: A bereavement policy shows the company understands the importance of balancing life events and workplace demands. This work-life balance is a crucial ingredient of employee satisfaction.

  • Fosters compassionate company culture and reputation: Employees get a sense of positive community where the company cares for individuals, personal relationships, and families. The result is a positive company culture.

These outcomes contribute to the emotional well-being of employees, a compassionate company culture, and retention of talent.

Federal law doesn't mandate companies to offer bereavement leave. However, some states and counties do require bereavement leave to be offered to employees, whether paid or unpaid. If the state does not legally require bereavement leave, the decision is left up to the employer. 

States mandating bereavement leave include:

  • Oregon: Companies with 25 or more workers in this state should offer up to two weeks of bereaved leave under the Oregon Family Leave Act

  • California: Eligible employees in a company with five or more workers are entitled to a maximum of five days to mourn the loss of a loved one

  • Illinois: Eligible employees in companies with 50+ workers can take a maximum of two weeks of bereavement leave under the Federal Family Medical Leave Act

  • Maryland: In companies with 15+ employees, individuals can get up to three days of bereavement leave

  • Washington: This state allows workers to take a maximum of three days of bereavement leave

Many unions include a bereavement policy in their workers' Collective Bargaining Agreement, and most public employees get a certain amount of time off for bereavement.

Although bereavement leave isn't a legal requirement, most companies offer it. An NFP 2019 leave benefits report revealed that 90% of the respondent employers provide some degree of bereavement leave.

It's important to stay up to date with the ever-changing government guidelines in your jurisdiction regarding bereavement leave. This becomes even more crucial if you run a multistate or multinational company.

What family members qualify for bereavement leave?

Most companies permit bereavement leave for the loss of close and some extended family members, such as:

  • Spouse or domestic partner

  • Child (including adopted, step, and foster child)

  • Parent (including step-parents)

  • Parent-in-law

  • Siblings (including step-siblings)

  • Grandparent

  • Grandchild

It’s important to check your company’s policies on bereavement leave to determine which family members are covered.

What is the content of a typical bereavement leave policy?

These are the typical sections of a bereavement policy:

  • Guidelines: General information on what the company provides to its employees when they experience the passing of a loved one. It will also be made clear if the bereavement leave is paid or unpaid and how many days employees can expect to have.

  • Eligibility rules: This part explains who is entitled to bereavement leave. For instance, employers may restrict the benefits to full-time workers or those who have lost only close family members. This may also cover a threshold of hours an employee must have worked prior to the request in order to be eligible.

  • Procedures: This section highlights the steps an employee must take to request time off under the bereavement leave policy. Steps may include requesting time off from their manager, filling out a form, and sometimes providing proof of death.

  • Duration: This section covers the number of days provided to an employee under the leave policy. It may also address extending the leave if circumstances warrant.

Understanding the company's bereavement policy and applicable rules allows the employee to plan for the unexpected passing of a loved one or friend.

Is bereavement leave paid?

You can provide unpaid or paid leave depending on your financial muscle. If you’re a startup without many funds, you may choose to offer unpaid leave.

You can also use a hybrid method, where you provide partially paid and partially unpaid bereavement leave—for example, four paid and three unpaid days.

How long is bereavement leave?

The amount of bereavement leave employees are entitled to will vary across companies. Generally, employers provide three days of bereavement leave, per instance, to an employee who has lost a loved one. In some cases, workers may borrow extra days from their sick days, vacation, and other part-time off (PTO) as additional time for bereavement leave.

When crafting a bereavement leave policy, consider what your employee needs to do when mourning their loved ones. For example, an employee who loses an immediate family member may need more time to manage personal responsibilities such as funeral arrangements, financial responsibilities, and personal property.

But whatever the relationship with the deceased, the worker will appreciate enough space and time to grieve their loved one during this critical life event. An empathy survey involving 2,000 US families revealed that 31% of workers cannot focus clearly after losing their loved one, and distraction affects 25%.

Do employers require proof before allowing bereavement leave?

It's up to an employer to decide whether they require documentation to accompany a request for bereavement leave. Examples of reasonable proof include:

  • Funeral notice

  • Obituary

  • Death certificate

  • Written bereavement notice disclosing the deceased's name, place and date of death, and their relationship with the worker

If your company policy demands proof for a bereavement leave request, act compassionately to avoid being insensitive. Try to make the requirement as easy as possible—the employee can even submit proof after the leave.

What if a company lacks bereavement leave?

Lack of bereavement leave can add more stress to a grieving employee. Fortunately, there are several options to consider.

First, review the company's policies and employee handbook to see if the company offers other types of leaves or benefits, such as:

  • Paid time off (PTO), including sick leave

  • Flexible work arrangements

  • Unpaid personal leave

  • Vacation days

The employee might request PTO or vacation days for bereavement purposes. 

The employee needs to talk with their manager or HR and let them know about their situation. Even if the company lacks a formal bereavement policy, the company may be willing to provide some flexibility.

How can you support a grieving team member?

Providing a bereavement policy is a good way of supporting an employee who has just lost a loved one. Other ways you can support a grieving team member are:

  • Enable close team members to attend the funeral and memorial service

  • Provide the person with a flexible schedule

  • Offer adjustments to the employee’s workload

  • Grant additional leave when the bereavement leave isn't enough

  • If available, offer emotional support resources such as your Employee Assistance Program

  • Consider offering paid leave

  • Consider sending the family flowers, food items, or gift cards

  • Offer support

  • Be compassionate

Conclusion

Bereavement leave offers the much-needed time for employees to grieve away from the hustle and bustle of work life. It fosters a culture of empathy and fortifies employees' well-being. This investment in your workforce's emotional well-being is the secret to employee productivity, good mental health, and satisfaction.

FAQs

Can a friend's death qualify for bereavement leave?

Employers typically allow time off only if it's the death of a ‘family member’ (according to the law's definition). But the definition of ‘family’ may vary across organizations, so it's crucial to revisit the company's policy.

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