Definition of Bereavement Leave


Bereavement leave is a benefit eligible employees use when they’re mourning. A bereavement policy informs workers of their rights under any applicable federal, state, or local laws. It also outlines an organization’s policy and terms for time off in the event of a death.

Some companies call their policy funeral leave or compassionate leave. Regardless of how it’s titled, the policy is designed to help workers make or attend to any necessary arrangements and take time to grieve.

What is bereavement leave?

The only things certain in life are death and taxes. Business owners, Human Resource professionals, and employers of all sizes must manage both. A company’s bereavement leave policy can support employees impacted by their loved one’s death during their time of need.

Bereavement leave is a specific type of work leave given to employees after a family member or, in some cases, a close associate dies. This leave provides workers with time away from work to:

  • Make arrangements
  • Attend wakes, funerals, or other memorial events
  • Mourn their loss

Bereavement leave is a different type of leave benefit, used only if a death occurs. It does not accumulate and is not payable to the employee upon separation. In most cases, bereavement leave in and of itself does not reduce an employee’s accumulated sick, vacation, or personal time.

Businesses can define the terms of bereavement leave as long as they comply with local legislation. There is no federal employer requirement to provide bereavement leave. Few states currently mandate employers provide job-protected bereavement leave.

A best practice is to check with your state or local Department of Labor to ensure you comply with any bereavement leave laws.

Why is bereavement leave important for businesses?

Businesses that provide bereavement leave can see higher employee engagement and retention levels. When an organization offers time off, either paid or unpaid, in the event of the death of a close relation, they message the importance of work/life balance. Staff members who experience a loss are given, at minimum, the time they need to make arrangements or attend services for their loved one.

The challenge for SMBs may be to provide the most generous bereavement leave possible to help workers manage the immediate needs of a death and have time to process their grief. Some organizations believe the standard 1 to 5 days leave isn’t enough time to let an employee make necessary arrangements and process their grief.

In 2017, Meta (then Facebook) increased its bereavement leave allowance to up to 20 days for the death of an immediate family member and 10 for extended family. Many other large corporations followed suit.

History of bereavement leave

Until recently, bereavement leave was not a priority for businesses. In 2012, the last year they crunched the numbers, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 60% of private sector workers had access to paid bereavement leave.

However, breaking down paid time off by category resulted in only 29% of part-timers being paid for time off and 71% of full-timers. Generally, the time allowed has been almost exclusively for making arrangements and attending funerals. The federal government continues to refer to bereavement leave as ‘funeral leave.’

For most workers around the world, bereavement leave — an opportunity to grieve the loss of a loved one is not available: they only have access to funeral leave. These workers worldwide don’t fare much better than US employees, although some countries mandate bereavement leave. Under the Canadian and French labor codes, employees are guaranteed 3 days off. Australia and Brazil require 2 days of paid leave.

That may change as states mandate some form of leave, and organizations recognize that most employees need more than a few days to recover from their loss.

Is bereavement leave an entitlement for anyone?

Unless specified by law, employers may choose, at their discretion, which employees are entitled to bereavement leave. Some businesses provide this leave to full- and part-time employees. Others consider only full-time staff eligible.

Many employers require workers to have some length of tenure before eligibility — typically 6 months on the job. There may be different leave lengths or leave payments based on employee status. An employer may provide exempt (salaried) employees 5 days of paid or unpaid bereavement leave but only 3 days of paid or unpaid for non-exempt (hourly) employees.

Providing there are no laws mandating bereavement leave where you do business, it’s up to each employer to determine how much leave they will provide. By applying the policy equally across all categories of workers, the employer may set the terms of leave allowance and payments. Generally, employers may choose whether or not employees will be paid for their time off. There are exceptions in only a handful of states that mandate how bereavement leave is allocated and whether or not employees must be paid.

Is bereavement leave for immediate family only?

For most employers, bereavement leave is provided in the event of the death of a family member. Some businesses provide more significant leave amounts based on the deceased’s relationship to the employee. Leave time may be longer, typically 3 days, for immediate family members:

  • Parent
  • Child/grandchild
  • Sibling
  • Spouse
  • Grandparent

These relationships typically include foster, step, and in-law relatives in each category.

There may be a reduction of leave time to 1 day or less for other relatives or close associates, based on the employer’s discretion. This could include aunts/uncles, cousins, nieces/nephews, or close friends.

To ensure an equitable workplace, all employees should receive the same benefits and be subject to the same rules.

For some workers, an aunt/uncle or another family member may have assumed a parental role for the employee. In other scenarios, the death of an ex-spouse may mean an employee must attend to the needs of their grieving children. While not in their immediate family, these losses may prove more challenging to manage in a short amount of time. Additional leave is generally provided in these instances, even though the relative is not an immediate family member.

What should a bereavement leave policy include?

It’s essential to have a bereavement policy in place before an employee experiences a loss. Structuring bereavement policy ensures staff members know what they are entitled to and what to expect from the company. A bereavement leave policy should outline:

  • If bereavement leave is provided
  • Whether pay will be provided for time off
  • The allowable amount of time per death, based on the employees’ relationship to the deceased
  • Annual allowable time off, if applicable

Many employers cap the amount of bereavement time an employee is entitled to annually, regardless of the relationship to the deceased. That can be challenging to enforce. If there are grey areas, the policy should reserve the right to decide the length of allowable leave time or payments made at their discretion.

To ensure an equitable workplace, all employees should receive the same benefits and be subject to the same rules. If an adjustment is made, ensure you apply any changes or additions to the leave policy in your employee handbooks and policies. It’s important to note that if you’re providing an exception to any policy guidelines for a single employee, the same exception should be given to all employees.

Some employers require staff to provide proof a family member has died. This could include an obituary, death certificate, or funeral program. However, these documents may not be available until after the leave has begun.

If requiring proof, notify employees they will need to provide the documentation after they’ve returned to work. Failure to provide the required documentation may result in the employer’s warranted pursuit of disciplinary action. Adjusting the employee’s pay may be appropriate if:

  • There was an application of payment for the bereavement leave
  • The employee did not produce the required documents

Is bereavement leave a required employer benefit?

There is no federal requirement to offer bereavement leave. Employers are not required to provide employees with bereavement leave. The exception is for those who are located in one of the few states mandating a related law. However, it is a best practice to allow workers time to make and attend to arrangements necessary following a death in their immediate circle. It’s important to allow staff members time to grieve their loss.

Many states are considering adding bereavement leave to their labor laws.

Of the few states that require bereavement leave:

  • Oregon mandates businesses with over 25 workers to provide bereavement leave time off. In that state, employees must have completed 180 days on the job at an average of at least 25 hours a week to be eligible. According to Oregon’s law, employees must take leave within 60 days of the death under Oregon’s law.
  • Maryland has similar requirements.
  • Illinois mandates employers allow up to 2 weeks of unpaid bereavement leave following the death of a child.

Check with local Departments of Labor for current and upcoming bereavement legislation where you do business.

Should employers provide paid or unpaid bereavement leave?

Unless required by law, making the leave paid or unpaid during bereavement leave is at the employer’s discretion. Some businesses cap the amount of annual bereavement leave payments allowable; others have an unlimited policy.

Employer-paid bereavement leave is typically a different type of leave. It does not reduce the worker’s allotment of:

  • Sick
  • Vacation
  • Personal time

A bereavement policy that provides time off without pay can also allow the employee to offset wage loss by choosing to use any accrued sick, vacation, or personal time.

A bereavement policy should outline what payments if any, are provided during the leave. It should also notify employees of their right to use any accrued time off during their absence. This will help workers plan for any financial impact incurred during the leave.

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Summary of bereavement leave

Most People Operations Leaders and businesses recognize that offering some form of bereavement leave is a best practice. It’s a compassionate policy that attracts and retains workers.

Providing the most reasonable possible leave within your budget is a wise practice for business and a considerate benefit for employees.

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