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Bereavement leave: Understanding policies and bereavement pay

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It’s a fact of life: At some point, most of us face the difficult and painful challenge of dealing with the death of a loved one.

In addition to beginning the grieving process, many who watch loved ones pass on are also obligated to handle various burdensome tasks associated with the death, such as planning funeral services and administering the deceased’s estate.

When this happens, employees need time to process their loss and take care of newly created associated responsibilities.

That’s where bereavement leave comes in. It’s an important component of any employee benefits package.

What is bereavement leave?

Bereavement leave is time off provided to employees so that they can deal with the death of a loved one. The time off is provided to aid employees in the process of mourning and to make it easier for them to meet associated responsibilities, including responsibilities they may have relating to estate administration.

Employers are generally free to set their own policies relating to bereavement.

Some employers limit the use of the leave to cases involving the death of a spouse, parent or child. But those people do not make up the entire range of loved ones for whom bereavement leave can be taken. Even employers who limit the use of bereavement pay to cases involving the death of an “immediate family member” define that term in various ways.

Many employers add siblings, grandparents and great-grandparents to the list. Extended family members, such as aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins may also be included. Some bereavement policies permit the use of leave in cases involving a miscarriage or an unsuccessful in vitro fertilization, while others allow the use of such leave for the loss of a pet.

In a 2023 survey, only 5% of respondents said they did not offer any bereavement leave to their employees.

The same survey indicated that the majority of respondents (57%) offered three days of bereavement leave, while about one-fifth (18%) offered five days.

Only 1% provided unlimited bereavement leave, while 18% said the amount of leave granted depended on individual needs.

Some employers provide more leave for closer family members and less for more distant ones.

Are employers required to offer bereavement leave?

No federal law requires employers to offer bereavement leave, and with some exceptions, employers are free to set their own bereavement policies. For example, California and Oregon have their own state laws that require employers to provide bereavement leave.

Other states with laws addressing this type of leave include Maryland, Illinois and Washington.

Among the most notable trends in the provision of this leave is to allow it in cases involving the loss of a child through miscarriage or cases involving an unsuccessful attempt at in vitro fertilization.

In one 2023 survey, more than a third (36%) of respondents offered this leave in cases of miscarriage.

Giving employees bereavement leave is very important for employee morale – and it shows empathy by their employer.

Is bereavement leave paid?

As the state laws that address bereavement leave show, bereavement leave can be paid or unpaid.

In most states, employers may choose whether to offer bereavement leave and to decide whether such leave will be paid or unpaid.

Remember too that employers have the flexibility to implement a policy that includes both paid and unpaid leave for bereavement purposes. For example, an employer may provide three paid days that are supplemented by an additional two unpaid days.

Whether it is paid or unpaid, bereavement leave can improve productivity, increase loyalty and attract higher-quality employees. It supports employees’ mental health and improves their work-life balance.

All things considered, it’s really a no-brainer: Some measure of bereavement leave should be provided.

The Human Resource Standards Institute says a standard policy suggests anywhere between three and seven days of bereavement leave. Of course, leave time specifically designated as being taken for bereavement purposes may be supplemented by the use of other accumulated and otherwise unused PTO.

Employers should actively encourage their employees to speak with their HR department so they are clear about their options when it comes to bereavement leave.

Do part-time employees get bereavement pay?

How can employees take bereavement leave?

A bereavement policy will not serve its purpose very well if employees do not have a clear understanding of what the policy is and exactly how and when they can use bereavement leave. There are many questions regarding what the policy entails that employers must clearly answer for their employees when they construct a bereavement policy.

Your bereavement policy should be clearly spelled out in your employee handbook. It is also a good idea to add it to any internal company website that you maintain.

Some employers choose to require their employees to provide them with proof of loss, typically in the form of a death certificate, before taking bereavement leave. Other forms of proof of loss include a prayer card or funeral information. Just remember that requiring proof of loss suggests a lack of trust in employees precisely at a time when they are going through what is typically a very painful experience. Unless you have a good reason to doubt the sincerity of a request for bereavement leave, requiring proof of loss is a bad idea.

Employees seeking to use bereavement leave should be instructed to speak to their manager and proceed through your HR department to process the request. Some employers use an HR platform that lets employees choose “bereavement” as the reason they are taking time off.

What is a typical bereavement policy?

A solid bereavement policy includes several important components that are spelled out clearly for employees.

First, the class of loved ones for whom bereavement leave may be taken must be clearly defined. Do not use the term “immediate family member” in your policy without defining precisely what that term means. And remember that you may choose to provide more leave for closer family members and less leave for more distant ones – and to offer this leave for the loss of a pet.

Second, make sure your policy indicates whether bereavement leave is paid or unpaid. In most states, employers have flexibility with respect to this decision. Remember too that employers may choose to offer a combination of paid and unpaid bereavement leave.

Next, establish the number of days that can be taken. One 2023 survey found that half of surveyed companies offered three days of bereavement leave.

Other companies opt not to set hard caps on the number of days that can be used for bereavement leave, choosing instead to set general guidelines that are applied on a case-by-case basis.

If the number of days sought for bereavement leave exceeds the maximum number of days set by your policy, employees should be given the opportunity to use additional accumulated time off.

Another area requiring absolute clarity relates to the class of employees who are eligible to take this leave. Is there a length of service requirement? Are part-timers eligible? Answer these questions in your policy.

You may also choose to spell out the kinds of bereavement obligations that qualify for bereavement leave, such as mourning, planning funeral services, and handling legal obligations.

Employees should also be very clear about who they should talk to if questions about application of the policy arise. Best practice: Designate an HR person to execute this function.

If you choose to require proof of loss from employees, explain what documentation is sufficient to meet that requirement.

Summary

Bereavement leave provides employees with a crucial benefit at what is typically a very difficult moment in their lives. A strong bereavement leave policy provides multiple benefits for employers and employees alike.

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