Q: The Employer’s Guide to Setting Up a Bereavement Leave Policy

It’s important for employers to remember that when grieving, people experience different ways of coping, and may have varied attitudes and beliefs about the healing process. Having a clear and thoughtful bereavement leave policy is good for your employees—and for your business.

If you have an employee who recently lost a family member, they may want some time off work to grieve, attend the funeral, and spend time with loved ones. But, if you don’t have a bereavement leave or grievance pay policy in place, handling these kinds of requests can be difficult; here’s what you need to know to set up a bereavement leave policy for your business. 

What is bereavement leave?

Bereavement leave is a benefit offered to employees enabling them to take time off to grieve the loss of a loved one, typically an immediate family member but sometimes also a close relative or friend. This can include time to make funeral arrangements and to attend the funeral.

In some situations, you may also hear it called a funeral leave, but they’re essentially the same thing. The leave provides employees a set amount of paid time off—and sometimes extended leave that might not be paid. 

bereavement leave definition

Are there bereavement leave laws?

There are no federal bereavement leave laws requiring employers to offer paid or unpaid time off and the vast majority of states don’t have bereavement laws in place.

The exceptions are: 

  • Oregon, which requires that employers with 25 or more employees in Oregon in the current or previous year offer bereavement leave. That leave is up to two weeks, and it must be taken within 60 days of when the employee learned of the death. Oregon doesn’t, however, require the leave to be paid. Employees qualify for bereavement leave if they have worked at least 180 calendar days and an average of 25 hours a week before taking the leave.
  • Washington state, which requires all employers to provide bereavement leave under the state’s paid sick leave laws. 
  • Illinois has a more limited law: Illinois’ Child Bereavement Leave Act requires employers with at least 50 employees to provide up to 10 work days of unpaid leave upon the loss of a child.

Federal and state laws aside, there are circumstances in which an employer may still be required to provide bereavement leave:
 

  • If an individual employment contract or a collective bargaining agreement (in the case of union workers, for example) includes a bereavement leave arrangement, the employer must honor it.  
  • Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers may need to provide funeral leave as it relates to religious accommodations—so long as the employee’s request for religious accommodation is not an undue hardship for the employer. Since religious beliefs and practices are broadly described under Title VII, employers have the right to request more information about a leave request and evaluate each request on a case-by-case basis. Take a look at Adeyeye v. Heartland Sweeteners, LLC as a reference.

Should I offer leave and bereavement pay if I’m not required to?

If you’re not required to offer bereavement leave, then it’s up to you to decide whether to do so. And if you do, whether to provide bereavement pay along with the leave.

Most employers include bereavement leave in some capacity. According to a report by the Society for Human Resource Management, 88% of employers offer paid bereavement leave for their full-time employees. Of those employers, the average length of leave offered is one to four days, depending on the employee’s relationship with the deceased.

If you choose to adopt a bereavement leave policy, it’s important that you communicate it to your employees clearly and in writing. (This is definitely something to put in your employee handbook.) That way, there aren’t any surprises when someone wants to use it.

If you decide to set up a policy, make sure it includes answers to common questions. Clearly explain the following:

  • What bereavement leave is and how an employee would qualify to take it (for instance, in the case of an immediate family member’s death)
  • How many days are available for bereavement leave and if the days can be taken non-consecutively
  • If paid and/or unpaid leave are available—and how much of each 
  • In the case of paid leave for shift workers with variable rates of pay (like higher rates for night shifts), clarification on rate of pay during the leave
  • If verification of loss (such as a funeral home notice or published obituary) is required 
  • How to request leave and track the time accordingly
  • If extended leave is an option, provide clarity on whether any benefits are paused (e.g. a vesting schedule)

You’ll need to create your company’s leave policy based on any applicable state laws,the needs of your employees, and what you can realistically offer. If you currently don’t have a plan in place and are looking to create one, you may want to poll your workers to see what an ideal policy would look like.

If you decide not to provide bereavement leave for your employees, however, you may want to let them know that they can still use other options such as PTO to take time off

Who is considered immediate family for bereavement leave?

Generally, any of the following could be considered immediate family:

  • Spouse or domestic partner
  • Parents and stepparents
  • Children and stepchildren
  • Grandparents
  • Grandchild
  • A spouse or domestic partner’s immediate family member

That said, unless you’re governed by state bereavement leave laws, you’re free to set your own definition of an immediate family, and you can even allow for other close relatives. Ensure that your policy’s definition of family is broad and inclusive of all employees and their families. (For example, be sure that your definition of family includes domestic partners and their immediate family.)  use this template from SHRM can serve as a guide, and The Human Rights Campaign Foundation is a resource to help ensure that policies are equitable for LGBTQ employees. 

Resources during and after bereavement

In addition to time off work, ou may consider offering additional  resources and support, such as:

  • Remote work. If an employee has to travel to attend a funeral or manage arrangements, you may want to offer remote working opportunities if possible.
  • Flexible hours. Estate-related tasks tend to be easier to handle during normal business hours. If you’re able to offer flexible hours for a few weeks after an employee returns from leave, this may be a welcome benefit.
  • Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). Employee Assistance Programs generally offer a broad range of support resources, from grief counseling to legal services.  

As an employer, it’s important to remember that your workers grieve differently and even a thoughtful policy may require some exceptions based on employee needs. An HR partner can assist in training your managers or leaders on how to best support and retain employees during a difficult time, while also ensuring that colleagues and business customers are not unduly impacted. 

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