Navigating an appropriate response when someone loses a loved one can be uncomfortable and confusing, especially for an employer. However, rather than shying away from the situation, you should offer grieving employees the support they need during these difficult times. Having a well-defined bereavement leave policy in place is a great way to do this. Before you craft one, you should understand the laws and guidelines around bereavement leave and how they apply to your business.
Bereavement leave basics
Understanding the basics of bereavement leave can help you create a bereavement leave policy that supports your employees.
What is bereavement leave?
Bereavement leave, also known as compassionate leave, is a period of paid or unpaid time off an employee can take following the death of a family member or close friend. Employees can use bereavement leave to grieve the loss of their loved one, take care of arrangements, and plan or attend funeral services.
Is bereavement leave mandatory?
There are not currently any federal laws that require you to offer bereavement leave to your employees, and most states don’t require employers to offer bereavement leave either. However, a few states have laws and regulations related to bereavement leave.
Here are a few state guidelines to take note of.
- California: Eligible employees can take up to five days of bereavement leave for the death of a family member. This applies to employers with five or more employees.
- Illinois: Eligible employees can take up to two weeks of unpaid bereavement leave for the death of a covered family member or losses related to fertility, pregnancy, surrogacy and adoption. This applies to employers with 50 or more employees.
- Maryland: Eligible employees can use up to five days of paid sick time or up to three days of bereavement leave for the death of an immediate family member. This applies to employers with 15 or more employees.
- Oregon: Eligible employees can take up to two weeks of bereavement leave for the death of a family member, with a maximum of up to 12 weeks per calendar leave year. This applies to employers with 25 or more employees.
- Washington: Eligible employees can take up to three days of bereavement leave for the death of an immediate family member.
State and city guidelines are ever-changing, so other eligibility requirements for bereavement leave may exist depending on where your business is based and where your employees live. It’s crucial that you familiarize yourself with the laws in your area to stay compliant.
Who can take bereavement leave?
Unless the law states otherwise, it is usually up to the individual company to determine which employees are eligible for bereavement leave, whether they’re full time or part time, entry level or management.
Some businesses may restrict bereavement leave to apply only to full-time employees who lose an immediate family member; other employers may offer more comprehensive policies that support any employee affected by a death.
The best bereavement policies are comprehensive and allow eligible employees to take paid leave after the loss of any loved one, regardless of the employee’s relationship to the deceased (e.g., spouse, domestic partner, child, parent, stepparent, sibling, grandparent, grandchild, friend or neighbor). Your company’s bereavement leave policy should clearly state who is eligible for leave and under what circumstances.
Is proof required to take bereavement leave?
It is up to your company to decide — and outline in your bereavement leave policy — whether employees must provide documentation or proof of death to take bereavement leave.
Requiring proof can be uncomfortable, and you may appear insensitive, so approach the situation compassionately. If you decide to require proof, try to make it as easy as possible on the employee, and consider allowing the employee to submit the proof after they have returned to work.
Shirley King, founder of Life On Power, said reasonable examples of proof can include an obituary, funeral notice or written bereavement leave request that discloses the deceased’s name, date of death, city of death and the relationship of the deceased to the employee requesting leave.
How long is bereavement leave?
The average bereavement leave policy grants an employee three to four days off for the loss of an immediate family member, like the employee’s spouse, and less time for the loss of extended family or friends.
At some companies, employees can negotiate for additional time off by getting permission to take paid vacation days, sick leave or unpaid time off. Because bereavement leave is optional in most states, the number of days an employee can take off work will likely depend on what your bereavement leave policy dictates. [Read related article: PTO Policy Best Practices]
Is bereavement leave paid or unpaid?
Bereavement leave can be paid or unpaid; however, most businesses offer full or partial pay for the allotted days off.
Offering paid leave for bereavement isn’t typically required by law, but it can be a great way to help employees in their time of need and show them that you value them and care for their well-being. Beyond the benefits of supporting employees’ mental and emotional health, providing paid bereavement leave can impact employee retention.
Why your business should provide bereavement leave
Mindy Cassel, co-founder of the Children’s Bereavement Center, said that companies and supervisors have an opportunity to influence the recovery of their employees by supporting them after a loss via bereavement leave.
“The benefit to the company is that of greater appreciation and loyalty by both the griever and the staff for their compassion during a critical life event,” Cassel told business.com. “The adjustment of the bereft employee will be enhanced by reduced stress, flexibility and social support.”
Many people see providing bereavement leave as the right thing to do, something that is kind and reflects the morals and values of the organization. But there are practical benefits a company stands to gain too. If you help your employee through this difficult time and give them space to grieve, you increase the likelihood that they will be capable of returning to their work when the time comes and be motivated to do so. Conversely, an employee who doesn’t get to take leave might have extra difficulty keeping up with their responsibilities and being productive due to the emotional stress they are under. From that vantage point, it’s in a company’s interest to provide leave if they want their employee to be as mentally healthy as possible and to succeed in their role going forward.
Bereavement policy advice for business owners
Although bereavement leave is not legally mandatory in most states, it is a best practice for every business to offer some form of it. Companies can support their employees by creating a clear and comprehensive bereavement leave policy.
King said a comprehensive bereavement leave policy should address the following:
- Who qualifies for bereavement leave?
- What are the guidelines for immediate family members, extended family members and friends?
- How many days of bereavement leave can an employee take?
- Is bereavement leave paid or unpaid?
- What are the guidelines for requesting bereavement leave?
- What documentation is required for bereavement leave requests?
- How will your current payroll system track bereavement leave? [See the best online payroll services if you need to make a switch.]
It is essential that your bereavement leave policy aligns with your available resources and is as inclusive as possible. When determining the guidelines for immediate and extended family members, King advised business owners and managers to remember that blended families are a large part of employee family life in our current society.
You may also want to create a policy that allows for flexibility as to the days the employee can take off (i.e., the policy can indicate the number of days for bereavement leave, but the employee can schedule the specific dates with their immediate supervisor). Not everyone will want to take their entire leave all at once depending on the specifics of their situation.
Include the bereavement policy in your employee handbook and update it as needed. To prevent claims of discrimination in the workplace, apply the policy fairly across your organization.
“For optimal acceptable use of the bereavement policy, members of management should have an annual policy review, along with other annual pertinent policy reviews,” said King.
In addition to bereavement leave, flexible scheduling (often called flextime) and remote-work arrangements are other ways you can support grieving workers.
How to support a grieving employee
On top of your bereavement policy, there are many ways that you and your team can assist a grieving employee when they return to work.
Cassel shared the following tips on how business owners can support bereft workers.
- Educate your staff about the needs of the grieving employee.
- Enable colleagues who work closely with the grieving employee to attend funeral and memorial services, if appropriate.
- Offer the grieving employee a flexible work schedule that allows them to tend to their personal needs.
- Find one or more employees who can assist with the grieving employee’s workload.
- Connect the grieving employee with a company mentor (e.g., a staff member who is close to the employee or who has experienced a similar loss) for emotional support.
- Continue to pay the grieving employee’s salary during leave and flextime.
- Avoid calling the grieving employee about work matters during the funeral, wake or shiva.
- Send a donation, food or flowers to the grieving employee, and ask if other assistance is needed (e.g., food shopping).
- Facilitate additional help through your HR team, employee assistance program or local support services.
Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.