With the number of American deaths due to COVID-19 now standing at just under one million people, it’s an unfortunate reality that Americans are experiencing grief in numbers never seen before. According to one study, over 70% of Americans say they know of someone who has been hospitalized or died from COVID-19, and each of these deaths leaves behind nine bereaved people.
Many of the grieving survivors are not only trying to cope with a painful personal loss; they’re also trying to manage their careers at the same time. Some companies have instituted policies that provide employees time off (bereavement leave) during this painful period of personal loss, yet many haven’t.
Bereavement leave is a very misunderstood term in the American workplace. If an employer offers it, you’ll usually find information concerning it buried somewhere in an employee handbook. It can be classified as an employee “benefit,” though it’s not on the same continuum as employer-sponsored life, health, or disability insurance.
To take the mystery out of bereavement leave, here are some frequently asked questions that will provide you some clarity today, and be available for you as a reference in the future, if needed.
What is bereavement?
Bereavement is a period of mourning after a loss, especially after the loss of a loved one. It’s a subjective term in that everyone experiences and processes grief differently, as well as the amount of time they need to bereave a loss.
Bereavement leave meaning
Bereavement leave is the time taken by an employee to grieve the loss of a loved one or close family member. Time is usually taken to prepare for and attend a funeral or attend to any other immediate details related to the death.
Who does bereavement leave cover?
Currently, no federal laws exist that require employers to provide their employees with either paid or unpaid leave. Therefore, it is entirely up to the employer's discretion as to what they will/will not allow employees to do work-wise when a loved one passes away.
Most states also don’t have requirements for private employers to provide paid bereavement leave, with several exceptions — the states of Oregon and Illinois.
Oregon requires up to two weeks of leave for bereavement per family member for employers with more than 25 employees (based on specific qualifications). Illinois also mandates two weeks of unpaid bereavement leave, but only after the death of a child.
The State of New York has also been working on legislation concerning mandatory bereavement leave. Recent efforts to mandate up to twelve weeks of bereavement leave for employees passed the state House and Senate, but was vetoed by the governor.
Collective bargaining agreements have created eligibility for some employees to take bereavement leave; many unions include the provision in their contract negotiations.
Is bereavement leave paid?
Just as it’s optional for employers to allow employees to take time off to grieve a loss, it’s the employer's choice to pay or not pay employees who do use bereavement leave, unless they’re obligated to do so under a collective bargaining agreement or employment agreement.
How do bereavement leave benefits work?
It's important to understand that employers can provide employees with different bereavement leave benefits.
Different classes of employees may be given different bereavement benefits, as long as the differences don’t result in the employee being discriminated against based on a protected class.
For example, an employer may allow an exempt manager, supervisor, or employee to take off five days for bereavement but only three days for non-exempt or hourly workers. Likewise, a company may allow full-time employees to take paid bereavement leave, but only let part-time workers take unpaid leave.
Who is considered immediate family for bereavement leave?
Since neither federal nor state laws (other than Oregon and Illinois) require private companies to provide employees with bereavement leave, employers can also determine what family members qualify for bereavement leave.
Company policies typically include:
- Child (biological, step, or adopted)
- Domestic partner
Other loved ones and family members less frequently included are:
- Aunts and uncles
- Nieces and nephews
- Long-time personal friends
- Individuals who lived in the same home at the time of death
How long is bereavement leave?
Once again, it’s entirely up to the employer to determine how much leave an employee can take. One employer may only allow employees to attend the funeral, while another may permit employees to take additional time beyond that.
Some employers set their policy based on how close the employee was with the deceased. For example, an employer may allow a worker to take three days of bereavement leave for the loss of a child, but only one day for the death of a nephew.
Do you need proof for bereavement leave?
Some employers may require employees to provide some type of proof (obituary, funeral program, death certificate) that a loved one or family member has passed away.
Since the evidence may not be available before an employee takes their bereavement leave, most employers who require proof will allow employees to provide it after the fact. An employee who fails to provide the requested evidence may not be paid for the leave or could face other disciplinary actions.
Bereavement leave vs. funeral leave
Bereavement leave and funeral leave are similar, but they're not exactly the same. Funeral leave is exactly what the name implies — you have time off for the funeral, nothing else. Bereavement leave gives employees time off to attend the funeral and take additional time to grieve.
Does FMLA cover bereavement?
No, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) doesn't extend to bereavement leave. The FMLA does give eligible employees the right to take unpaid time off work to care for a family member with a serious health condition. However, that time is only for providing care. If the family member passes away, the right to take FMLA leave ends.
A final thought
Outside of a couple of states currently weighing legislative changes, American workers, particularly lower-wage earners, will continue to struggle with inequitable bereavement leave policies. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that among the lowest 10% of wage earners in the country, less than 20% say they can access paid funeral leave if needed.
President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan initially contained a provision for a national comprehensive paid-leave program, including three days for bereavement, but that provision was cut. Sadly, as the death toll from COVID continues to rise, many American workers will deal with their grief without employer support.
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