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Is a lack of bereavement pay harming workers and employers?

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At some point, nearly all employees will experience the loss of a loved one, whether that’s a parent, spouse, grandparent, sibling or child. With this loss, they’ll need time off to attend the funeral and grieve with their family. Clear bereavement leave policies and offering bereavement pay could help make this difficult situation easier for the employee, their colleagues and the organization as a whole.

Laws About Bereavement Leave for Family Members

While employers may not be required to offer bereavement leave, many choose to do so. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not require payment for time not worked, even if that time is spent attending a funeral. Under federal law, this type of benefit is at the discretion of the employer.

However, some states and municipalities have additional requirements for bereavement leave and pay. For example, in California, most employees are entitled to up to five days of bereavement leave after the death of a family member.

Dealing with the Death of an Immediate Family Member

Whether the death of an employee’s family member is unexpected or is the result of a long-term illness, it can turn their life upside down. In the immediate aftermath of the death of a loved one, employees may have various emotions and obligations. They may:

  • Want to attend the funeral. While the funeral itself may only take half a day, the employee may need to travel across the country or the world. They may also be in charge of arranging the funeral, another factor that may add days to this timeline.
  • Need to handle practical matters. In addition to funeral arrangements, there may be practical issues related to the deceased’s property, medical bills and estate that need to be attended to by the employee.
  • Want to grieve with their loved ones. The grieving process is not confined to the funeral itself. Employees will likely want to spend time in the comfort of loved ones and to share memories about the deceased.
  • Not be in a mental space to work. Depending on how close they were to the deceased, they may be too distraught to think about anything related to work.

The Argument for Bereavement Paid Leave

According to a Gallup survey, fewer than one-fourth of U.S. employees feel strongly that their employer cares about their well-being.

When workers feel like their employer doesn’t care about them, they may be less motivated to do their best. This can hurt employee productivity, engagement and retention, which all play an integral role in the company’s bottom line.

Additionally, dissatisfied employees may be more likely to file complaints and lawsuits. According to the 2024 Carlton Fields Class Action Survey, employment-related class-action lawsuits have increased significantly in the past 12 months.

Employers can show they care about their workers by providing a generous employee benefits package that includes paid bereavement leave, even when it’s not required by law. Here are just a few reasons why offering bereavement leave to employees could be a smart idea.

  • Attract and retain talent. When it’s part of a comprehensive employee benefits package, paid bereavement leave can be a powerful recruitment tool. Employees who have used their bereavement leave may be more loyal because they know their employer was there for them when they needed support, while an employee who isn’t allowed to take time off may decide to quit on the spot.
  • Avoid employee disputes and reputational damage. Imagine what could happen if an employee needs to take time off to deal with an unexpected death and the employer doesn’t approve the time off. The employee may decide to quit. When the employee’s coworkers hear about what happened, workplace morale may plummet. The disgruntled employee may also take to social media to share what happened – and the public is not likely to view the company kindly in this situation.
  • Boost employee productivity. People who are dealing with fresh grief are unlikely to be productive workers. If they come to work because they don’t have time off or because they can’t afford to take unpaid time off, they likely won’t produce work of the same quantity or quality as usual. And, coworkers may take time to comfort the mourning employee, which could cause overall productivity to drop. In the end, letting the person take paid time off may be best for the company.

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Creating a Funeral Leave Policy

Whether your company decides to offer paid bereavement leave or not, creating a funeral leave policy can help your company avoid disputes. This policy should be in the employee handbook to ensure managers and employees know exactly what type of leave is available, as well as the various rules and restrictions surrounding it.

When crafting your bereavement and funeral leave policy, consider the following:

  • What laws are relevant? Check for any state or local laws that may require you to provide paid or unpaid bereavement leave.
  • Will you provide paid funeral leave? If so, how many days of paid leave will you make available?
  • How much bereavement leave will you allow? Many employers offer three days off for funeral leave. However, when individuals need to travel to attend a funeral or when they are responsible for arranging the funeral, they may need more time. Also, consider what will happen if an employee experiences two family deaths in a short period – for example, if an employee’s grandfather dies one month and the employee’s grandmother dies the next. Will you allow the full amount of bereavement time for each death or will you set an annual limit? Furthermore, will the amount of bereavement leave always be the same or will it depend on the employee’s relationship to the deceased?
  • What are the eligibility requirements for bereavement leave? Some eligibility requirements may be related to the employee. For example, does the employee need to work for the company for a certain period before qualifying for time off for bereavement or is this benefit available starting on day one? Also, consider the eligibility requirements for the death. Bereavement leave is often available when a spouse, child, sibling, grandchild or grandparent dies. Consider whether your organization’s policy will cover domestic partners, fiancés, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins, among others.
  • What proof will you require for approval? Many employers require a copy of the death certificate as proof. While employees may find this distasteful and burdensome, this practice could prevent unscrupulous employees from claiming that a relative died when they want a vacation. For this reason (and despite the unpleasantness), employers may decide they need to require proof. However, your organization may opt for some flexibility by allowing alternative forms of evidence, such as obituaries or funeral service programs.
  • Do employees have any other leave options they can use? In some cases, grieving employees may need time off to mourn someone other than a relative, such as a friend, former teacher or mentor. Employees may also want to take time off to attend the funerals of extended family members not covered under your policy for immediate family members. Lastly, workers experiencing deep grief may need more time than your funeral leave policy allows. Consider what options are available in these cases, such as vacation time or personal leave.

Crafting a bereavement leave policy is just one of the many tasks that fall on HR departments. If your team could use help, Higginbotham’s Human Resources and Employee Benefits specialists can provide the support you need, whether that’s creating compliant policies, implementing benefits packages and more. Get in touch with a member of our team to discover the Higginbotham difference.

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