Bereavement Leave: Policy, Benefits and Considerations for Employers

October 5, 2023
Bereavement Leave: An Employer’s Guide

The loss of a loved one can have profound consequences. Naturally, there is the grief involved. But there are also many details — notification of family, arrangement of services, etc. — which require an employee’s time and attention.

Bereavement leave is designed to provide staff the time away from work to focus on these matters, as well as their own mourning. For many employers, the company’s standard bereavement leave policy includes some amount of paid time off following the death of a loved one. But even unpaid time off can be a gift. While there’s no such thing as a normal bereavement time per se, typical bereavement leave provisions can help alleviate undue stress for employees in the early stage of grief. Often, that time away ends up benefiting everyone in the workplace upon their return.

As an employer or human resources professional, if you don’t have a formal bereavement policy, it’s worth considering one. But before you set pen to paper, understand what is meant by bereavement leave. What are the advantages to employers and employees? What are the trends shaping common bereavement policies? And what qualifications, procedures and other details should you establish and clarify for your staff?

What is bereavement leave?

Bereavement leave is time off provided specifically for employees who experience the loss of a loved one, such as a spouse, child or other family member. Employee leave for bereavement allows the staff member time to mourn. It also provides the employee time to arrange and attend memorial services, funerals, burial services and other related events.

Is bereavement leave required by law?

There is no federal law requiring bereavement leave. Most states also don’t have requirements for employers to provide paid bereavement leave. A notable exception is Oregon. Oregon’s bereavement leave requires up to 2 weeks of leave per year for bereavement per family member for eligible employees of covered employers based on specific qualifications.

Other U.S. cities and states are also pondering creating bereavement leave requirements for employers. And some employees may be eligible to take employee leave for bereavement under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement. Many unions include such provisions in their contract negotiations.

Nevertheless, the majority of U.S. businesses do offer some type of formal or informal bereavement leave.

What should be included in a standard bereavement policy?

A well-structured bereavement leave policy provides employees and managers guidance on how to navigate time off during a sensitive period. Ideally, the policy is written out along with other forms of employee leave (i.e. sick leave, family leave, vacation, etc.) in an employee handbook. At a minimum, a documented bereavement leave policy should include the following:

  • What qualifies for bereavement leave, including if you have different guidelines for immediate and extended family members.
  • How many days per year are available to employees for bereavement.
  • Whether the leave is paid or unpaid.
  • Guidelines for requesting leave and any documentation you may require.
  • Which systems to use for requesting and tracking time off.

Is bereavement leave paid or unpaid?

In the absence of federal, state or contractual requirements to provide wages for bereavement leave, many companies still choose to provide paid leave to employees as they grieve.

It’s best to determine set amounts of the paid or unpaid leave upfront so both employers and employees can budget for it. Depending on the relationship to the deceased, the length of leave allowed can help businesses determine whether they can afford to offer paid leave for the full or partial amount of time off.

While many companies hope to provide the longest possible leave to employees, typically up to five days, payment for all those days off may be burdensome. Businesses may choose fully unpaid leave for bereavement or they may pay wages on a portion of the time taken. A typical bereavement policy example might allocate five days off for the loss of an immediate family member with three of those days paid. The employee would have the option of taking the full leave with some unpaid time off or limiting their time off to the days paid.

How long is bereavement leave?

There’s no set rule for how long it takes to grieve. Nor is there a rule for how much bereavement leave is normal.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which mostly defines bereavement leave as time off to attend a funeral, suggests three days is common for immediate family and one day for other family members.

Many organizations choose to follow a similar structure of adjusting the amount of leave available based on the family member. Some organizations determine the amount of bereavement leave based on the relationship with the deceased. For immediate family — spouse, child, parent or grandparent (including step-children and in-laws) — the longest amount of time is typically provided. In today’s five-generation workforce, great grandparents and great grandchildren should be included in this category as well.

For example, average bereavement leave for the following categories tends to trend as follows:

  • Leave offered for the death of a spouse: three to five days.
  • Leave offered for the death of a child, parent or sibling: three to five days.
  • Leave offered for the death of extended relatives: one day.

In today’s world, however, many exceptions can occur. Domestic partners without the benefit of a marriage license should be considered spouses under any bereavement policy. Aunts or other family members may have taken on parental responsibilities for employees and may be considered as close a relation as parents themselves. Bereavement policies should offer some flexibility for these situations.

What qualifies for bereavement leave?

A bereavement policy should outline what qualifies for employee leave, including the amount of time allotted based on the relationship to the deceased. It should also outline what responsibilities the employee holds, if any.

Death is often unexpected. Hence, not every employee can provide advanced notification of an anticipated need for bereavement leave. But policies can request that employees notify their manager or HR as quickly as possible following the loss so leave requests can be discussed and allocated and coverage for the business can be arranged.

Should I ask for proof of loss?

The loss of a loved one is intensely personal. Asking for proof of a loss is something an employer has to weigh carefully and require equally. It’s not unheard of for some to pretend to have experienced a death in the family or among friends.

Many funeral homes provide documentation to verify the employee has indeed lost a loved one. A bereavement policy can include some verification of the loss is required of the staff member. It could be as simple as an obituary or death notice in the newspaper or online or paperwork received from the funeral home.

Challenges after a loss

For employees who lose an immediate family member, a child, grieving may be just the beginning of their loss. Arrangements may need to be made to manage estate provisions, insurance and other legal requirements.

For an employee juggling these responsibilities and work, businesses may not be in a position to allow indefinite leave. But they can provide assistance as needed. They can help with necessary paperwork, including changes required by insurers for a major life event. Flexible scheduling or work from home options can also help employees transition through their life-altering events and return to work without additional pressure and concern.

Having a bereavement policy in place before employees suffer a loss provides staff members, managers and businesses with guidelines on what can be expected and will be provided in the event of a death. Businesses can even solicit staff’s input on how to craft the policy. When a bereavement policy is already established, the business can continue to function while a valued employee is given the time and space they need.

This article is intended only for informational purposes. It is not a substitute for legal consultation. While we attempt to keep the information covered timely and accurate, laws and regulations are subject to change.

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