Bereavement Leave

Angela Livingston
Angela Livingston
It is dreadful when an employee has death in the family, but knowing your policy and company guidelines in advance can help you assist your employees in their time of need. This article will give you the information you need to write your own bereavement leave policy.

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What Is Bereavement Leave?

Bereavement leave, also commonly known as funeral leave, is either paid or unpaid leave designated for your employees’ time of need surrounding the death of a loved one.

Note that the DOL is clear that FLSA does not require you to pay for time not worked, including funeral or bereavement leave. However, you should check your state and local laws because some do exist. Further, if you have union-represented employees, you should check the Collective Bargaining Agreement for leave to which they may be entitled.

Why You Should Offer Bereavement Leave

Death is a part of life. We all must endure it. You may have employees that never get sick, and you may have employees that don’t need time off for parent-teacher conferences, but everyone is affected by death multiple times throughout their career. Not all companies offer bereavement leave. Of those that do, not all offer paid leave. Here are three reasons you should strongly consider offering some kind of bereavement leave:

  • Job Security. Providing bereavement leave means that (paid or unpaid) your employees won’t have to stress about the safety of their job if they chose to say their goodbyes to the people they love that have passed.
  • Risk Management and Productivity. When employees are distressed and distracted, they are not productive. Grief can impact attention, which can lead to safety hazards. It can impact decision-making, which can lead to risks, unplanned costs, etc.
  • Employee Loyalty. Much of employee engagement and loyalty depends on if employees view their workplace as fair and treating people well. Improve employee retention by providing at least a little protected time, even if you have to provide it unpaid. Emotional employees may make rash decisions like leaving without notice because they are overwhelmed by the idea of needing to work when they are simply unable to.
  • Everyone is doing it. In a 2017 report, findings show that 83% of the companies surveyed offered paid bereavement leave separate from the employee’s PTO bank. The average amount of leave provided is three days.

When to Let Employees Use Bereavement Leave

How you write your policy is mostly up to you with notable exceptions of state or local laws that apply or a Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Compassion Leave

In the event of a terminal diagnosis, you could let your employees use their bereavement leave in advance of an imminent death. This could be a separate bank of leave available to them as well, depending on the generosity of your company.

Grieving

Employees may be in no state to work after the passing of a loved one. If your policy is strictly a Funeral Leave policy, it may not provide for time to grieve outside of the day of a funeral and/or travel time.

Funeral Planning

It is draining work to plan a funeral. Employees may need to coordinate between a funeral home, a house of worship, a cemetary, insurance and more in addition to planning the service itself and arranging the potential purchase of casket, flowers, gathering photos, etc.

Post-Funeral Needs

Employees that are named the executor of a will may need to attend probate, empty living quarters, move themselves and/or other family like an elderly parent or young children, sell a home, etc. Some bereavement policies will allow time to be spent in this way, though generally additional leave is not allotted.

Travel

Services may be held anywhere in the world. Some policies allow the time to be used for travel and may allot additional leave time based on the length of distance needed to travel. For instance, if the services are local, a company may offer two days of leave. If they are out of state, perhaps three days of leave. If they are international, perhaps five days of leave.

Timing

Do your employees need to start their bereavement leave the day of the death? Can it be postponed if the services are not held for a few weeks? Some employees may return to work quickly only to find they need to take the time after all, and that may be a month after the death.

Do Companies Need a Bereavement Leave Policy?

If bereavement leave is offered, there should be a policy so that it can be consistently applied. Many employees will expect there to be some leave offered, often paid, so if your company is not going to offer it, it may be prudent to indicate that no special leave is available for bereavement so that it is clear.

What Does A Bereavement Policy Cover?

The policy should cover what classifications receive how much leave for what kinds of relations that have passed. It should also indicate if the leave is paid or unpaid and how to take the leave. Additionally, it would be prudent to identify other related types of leave that can be combined depending on the need. For instance, some companies will allow employees to take sick time for grieving time, others may provide the option to take a month long unpaid personal leave of absence or may have a dependent care leave policy that can be activated any time dependents require full-time or part-time care for a period of a few months.

Pro Tip: It may be a good idea to indicate in this policy or elsewhere what the company will or will not do in the event of an employee’s passing or the relation of an employee passing. For example, if an employee’s funeral service is on a Wednesday afternoon, will the company allow the employee’s co-workers to take paid leave to attend? If the family is not holding a service, may the company provide a tree planted in the person’s name or other suitable sympathy gift? If the family requests charitable donations in lieu of flowers, will the company make a donation?

What a Typical Company Bereavement Leave Policy Includes

At a minimum, make sure these four components are included in your policy so employees know clearly how much leave they have available and how to properly request it.

There is no harm in including resources in the policy for quick reference. Managers will appreciate having them immediately at hand for their employees. Include your EAP if you have one, a number for a suicide prevention hotline, etc. It may be prudent to include information on or links to other related and potentially applicable policies such as personal leave of absence, temporary part-time schedule, dependent care leave, etc.

Covered Relations

You’ll need to explain what relationships are covered in the event of a death. For instance, if you indicate your company covers immediate family members, you should clearly define what that means.

You can simplify your list by indicating (assuming you intend to cover these variations) that any variety of parent, child, or sibling is covered whether the relation is the employee’s or the employee’s spouse’s or domestic partner’s. This would account for variations on our first thought of what is defined as a “child” by including foster children, step children, a daughter-in-law, etc. in the same way that all manner of parents would be covered from great grandparent to stepparent.

Amount of Leave

This does not have to be a flat amount, though you can do that. Sometimes the amount of leave is designated by:

  • Classification of employee
    • Exempt, non-exempt, union-represented, expats, etc.
    • Full-time, part-time, intern, etc.
  • Relationship of the deceased
    • More time may be allotted for a sibling’s death than a favored uncle even if he raised the employee
    • Time may not be offered for a best friend or pet
  • Distance of the services
    • Out of state or international travel may indicate additional time
  • Tenure of the employee
    • Like PTO accruals, this may increase with time within the company

Pay

Aside from a collective bargaining agreement or local/state laws requiring it, paid leave is not mandatory. Therefore, you should be clear about what is offered at paid or unpaid leave. Note that some companies will offer a combination such as three days paid followed by two days unpaid so that employees can be secure in their job but still take up to a week without the company having to pay for a full week.

How to Take Leave

Some companies take it on faith that employees have suffered a loss. Others request some kind of documentation. Best practice if you intend to request documentation is to accept an online obituary or service book (the pamphlets printed for a service that may include the order of events during the service, etc.). It is not good form to require a certificate of death because these can cost between $25-50 each and they often take a month or more after the death to be received by the employee.

Make sure your policy is clear about how the time is to be requested, i.e. who it can be requested from and in what format the request takes.

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Questions You’ve Asked Us About Bereavement Leave

How do employees take bereavement leave?
Usually employees contact the supervisor or HR by phone, text, or email. Your payroll department will likely have a time category set up for timekeeping. Be sure you are clear with the employee if documentation is required, then what forms of documentation are accepted. As death is often not expected, flexibility in how you accept these requests is a kindness that employees will appreciate.
Is bereavement leave paid?
Unless you are affected by local or state laws or it is covered in a Collective Bargaining Agreement, then it is at the company’s discretion to offer leave and determine whether it will be paid, unpaid or a combination.
Are bereavement and funeral leave the same?
Most of the time, yes. Some companies may only provide leave (paid or unpaid) for actually attending a funeral or memorial service. Most companies allow for the time to be used more broadly as bereavement time to grieve, plan a service, travel to a service, probate a will or other similar needs.
Is bereavement leave required by law?
Bereavement leave is not required by federal law, but state or local laws may exist.
Angela Livingston
Angela Livingston

Angela Livingston, SHRM-CP, MBA has nearly a decade of HR experience in high regulated, high tech companies that are Federal Contractors and supported people in other states. She’s worked for an international company with ~20K US employees that did a lot of immigration work, and she’s worked for a company with ~3500 US employees that doesn’t support work visas. One constant is that she’s always working with people empathetically with an eye on integrity.

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