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Updated Mar 15, 2024

What to Know About Bereavement Leave

Create a bereavement leave policy that follows these laws and best practices.

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Skye Schooley, Senior Lead Analyst & Expert on Business Operations
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Are you making a bereavement leave policy for your office? It can be hard for an employer to know how to respond when an employee loses a loved one. But don’t shy away. Give employees support while they grieve. A clear bereavement leave policy is a great way to do this. First, you should understand the laws around bereavement leave and how they apply to your business.

Bereavement leave basics

Knowing the basics of bereavement leave can help you create a policy that supports your employees.

What is bereavement leave?

Bereavement leave is also known as compassionate leave. It is a period of paid or unpaid time off an employee takes after the death of a family member or close friend. Employees can use bereavement leave to grieve the loss of their loved one. They can also use the time to make arrangements and go to funeral services.

Is bereavement leave mandatory?

While there are no federal bereavement leave laws, there are some state laws. Here are a few state laws to note.

StateWhatWho
CaliforniaEmployees can take up to five days of leave for the death of a family memberEmployers with five or more employees
IllinoisEmployees can take up to two weeks of unpaid leave for the death of a covered family member. This is also for losses related to fertility, pregnancy, surrogacy and adoptionEmployers with 50 or more employees.
MarylandEmployees can use either up to five days of paid sick time or up to three days off for the death of an immediate family member.Employers with 15 or more employees.
OregonEmployees can take up to two weeks off for the death of a family member. The max is 12 weeks per calendar leave year. Employers with 25 or more employees.

Be sure to check for other bereavement laws in your state.

Who can take bereavement leave?

Most state laws let employers decide who can take bereavement leave. Some may only let full-time employees take time off if they lose an immediate family member. Other employers may have rules to support any employee affected by a death.

The best bereavement policies are thorough. They let employees take paid leave after the loss of any loved one. This means there are no restrictions on who the person is. It could be a relative, friend or neighbor. Your bereavement leave policy should clearly state who is eligible for leave and when.

Is proof required to take bereavement leave?

It is up to you to say if employees need to give proof of death to take bereavement leave.

Asking for proof can be uncomfortable and seem insensitive. Approach the situation with compassion. If you ask for proof, make it as easy as possible for the employee. Let them submit the proof after they have returned to work.

Shirley King is the founder of Life On Power. She said reasonable examples of proof can be an obituary or funeral notice. You can also ask for a written request that lists the deceased’s name, date of death, city of death and the relationship to the employee.

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. 

FYIDid you know
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. 

TipBottom line
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.

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Skye Schooley, Senior Lead Analyst & Expert on Business Operations
Skye Schooley is a dedicated business professional who is especially passionate about human resources and digital marketing. For more than a decade, she has helped clients navigate the employee recruitment and customer acquisition processes, ensuring small business owners have the knowledge they need to succeed and grow their companies. In recent years, Schooley has enjoyed evaluating and comparing HR software and other human resources solutions to help businesses find the tools and services that best suit their needs. With a degree in business communications, she excels at simplifying complicated subjects and interviewing business vendors and entrepreneurs to gain new insights. Her guidance spans various formats, including newsletters, long-form videos and YouTube Shorts, reflecting her commitment to providing valuable expertise in accessible ways.
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