The Business Guide to Bereavement Leave Policies

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Being prepared when an employee loses a loved one is crucial. This article details requirements, definitions and expectations for bereavement leave.

The loss of a loved one has profound consequences. Naturally, there is the grief involved. But there are also many details — notification of family, arrangement of services, etc. — which require an employee’s time and attention. 

Bereavement leave is designed to provide staff the time away from work to focus on these matters, as well as their own mourning. For many employers, but not all, this includes providing a set amount of paid time off following the death of a loved one.

As a business, if you don’t have a formal bereavement policy, it’s worth considering one. But before you set pen to paper, it’s worth understanding what is meant by bereavement leave, trends shaping policies and qualifications.

What is bereavement leave?

Bereavement leave is time off provided specifically for employee’s who experience the loss of a loved one, such as a spouse, child or other family one. Employee leave for bereavement allows the staff member time to mourn. It also provides the employee time to arrange and attend arrangements such as memorial services, funerals, burial services, and other related events.

Many small to medium sized businesses don’t have a bereavement policy in place, but they should. A structured policy with guidelines that detail the benefits an employee is entitled to assures employees, and managers, what to expect during a difficult time. It also ensures leave is granted fairly and equitably.

Is bereavement leave required by law?

There is no federal law requiring bereavement leave. Most states also don’t have requirements for private employers to provide paid bereavement leave. A notable exception is Oregon. Oregon’s bereavement leave requires up to 2 weeks of leave for bereavement per family member for employers with more than 25 employees based on specific qualifications. 

Some cities and states are pondering creating bereavement leave requirements for employers. One such effort in New York, which would have added up to 12 weeks of bereavement leave for employees, passed the state House and Senate, but was vetoed by the governor.

Some employees may be eligible to take employee leave for bereavement under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement: many unions include such provisions in their contract negotiations.

Nevertheless, the majority of businesses do offer some form of bereavement leave.

What should be included in a bereavement policy?

A well-structured bereavement leave policy provides employees and managers guidance on how to navigate time off during a sensitive time. Ideally, the policy is written out along with other forms of employee leave (i.e. sick leave, family leave, vacation, etc.) in an employee handbook. At a minimum, a documented bereavement leave policy should include the following:

  • What qualifies for bereavement leave, especially if you have different guidelines for immediate and extended family members;
  • How many days are available to employees for bereavement;
  • Whether the leave is paid or unpaid;
  • Guidelines for requesting leave and any documentation you may require;
  • Which systems to use for requesting and tracking time off.

Is bereavement leave paid or unpaid?

There are no federal or state requirements to provide wages for bereavement leave (unless covered under a union contract). Still, many companies choose to provide paid leave to employees as they grieve.

According to research by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), the number of businesses that offer paid bereavement leave by 3 percentage points between 2014 and 2018. Now, 88% of businesses offer paid leave for bereavement.

Depending on the relationship to the deceased, the length of leave allowed can help business determine whether or not they can afford to offer employees paid or unpaid leave for the full amount of time off or some portion. 

While many companies hope to provide the longest possible leave to employees, typically up to five days, payment for all those days off may be burdensome. Businesses may choose fully unpaid leave for bereavement or they may pay wages on a portion of the time taken. An example would be allocating five days off for the loss of an immediate family member with three of those days paid. The employee would have the option of taking the full leave with some unpaid time off or limiting their time off to the days paid.

How long is bereavement leave?

There’s no set rule for how long it takes to grieve. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which mostly defines bereavement leave as time off to attend a funeral, suggests 3 days is common for immediate family and 1 day for other family members.

Many organizations choose to follow a similar structure of adjusting the amount of leave available based on the family member. Some organizations determine the amount of bereavement leave based on the relationship with the deceased. For immediate family – spouse, child, parent or grandparent (including step-children and in-laws) the longest amount of time is typically provided. In today’s five-generation workforce, great grandparents and great grandchildren should be included in this category as well.

The International Foundation of Employee Benefits Plans (IFEBP) performed research on how many days of paid leave businesses offered based on the relationship of the deceased to the employee. It fell into the following three groups:

Leave Offered for Death of a Spouse

The IFEBP provided the following breakdown of days off when an employee experiences the death of a spouse.

  • Two days – 2%
  • Three days – 56%
  • Four days – 5%
  • Five days – 29%
  • Six or more days – 5%

Leave Offered for the Death of a Child or Parent

The IFEBP reported that the breakdown of time off for this cohort was similar to the leave offered for the loss of a spouse. 

  • Two days – 3%
  • Three days – 60%
  • Four days – 5%
  • Five days – 27%
  • Six or more days – 3%

Leave Offered for the Death of Extended Relatives

The IFEBP reported that most businesses offered one day of bereavement leave to attend the funeral of aunt, uncle, niece or nephew.

In today’s world, however, many exceptions can occur. Domestic partners without the benefit of a marriage license should be considered spouses under any bereavement policy. Aunts or other family members may have taken on parental responsibilities for employees and may be considered as close a relation as parents themselves. Bereavement policies should offer some flexibility for these situations.

What qualifies for bereavement leave?

A bereavement policy should outline what qualifies for employee leave, including the amount of time allotted based on the relationship to the deceased. It should also outline what responsibilities the employee holds, if any. 

Obviously death is often unexpected. Not every employee can provide advanced notification of an anticipated need for bereavement leave. But policies can request employees notify their manager or HR as quickly as possible following the loss so leave requests can be discussed, allocated and coverage for the business can be arranged. 

Should I Ask for a Proof of Loss?

The loss of a loved one is intensely personal. Asking for a proof of a loss is something an employer has to weigh carefully, and require equally. It’s not unheard for some to pretend to have experienced a death in the family or among friends.

Many funeral homes provide documentation to verify the employee has indeed lost a loved one. A bereavement policy can include some verification of the loss is required of the staff member. It could be as simple as an obituary or death notice in the newspaper or on a website, or paperwork received from the funeral home. 

Challenges After a Loss

For employees who lose an immediate family member, a child, spouse or parent, grieving may be just the beginning of their loss. Arrangements may need to be made to manage estate provisions, insurance and other legal requirements may need to be met. 

For an employee juggling these responsibilities and work, business may not be in a position to allow indefinite leave, but they can provide assistance as needed. They can help with necessary paperwork, including changes required by insurers for a major life event, Flexible scheduling or work from home options can help employees transition through their life altering event and return to work without additional pressure and concern. 

Having a bereavement policy in place before employees suffer a loss provides staff members, managers and business with guidelines on what can be expected and will be provided in the event of a death. Business can even solicit staff member input on how to craft the policy. When a bereavement policy is already established, the business can continue to function while a valued employee is given the time and space they need.

This article is intended only for informational purposes. It is not a substitute for legal consultation. While we attempt to keep the information covered timely and accurate, laws and regulations are subject to change.

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