Keep bereavement leave policies up-to-date

leave request formAlthough there’s no federal requirement to offer employees time off after the death of a loved one, many businesses do it anyway. Before long, however, those voluntary policies could become law.

Oregon legislators in January en­­acted the first-ever state law requiring employers to offer bereavement leave. California’s Legislature has passed several bills to require businesses to grant employee requests for bereavement leave, but governors so far have vetoed those efforts.

And Congress may consider a proposal to amend the 21-year-old FMLA to include the death of a child, so a parent who suffers such a loss may take up to 12 weeks off without fear of losing his or her job.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 63% of U.S. workers are eligible for paid funeral leave. Hospitality and food services businesses are the least likely to offer it, while public utilities are the most likely. Large organizations are more likely than small companies to offer bereavement leave.

The average benefit among organizations that voluntarily offer it, according to the HR consulting firm Kushner & Co., is three to five days off—often paid—to grieve for a parent, spouse or child, and one to three days for employees who have lost a sibling or an extended family member like a grandparent, aunt or uncle.

Companies usually allow employees to stretch that allotment by pairing it with accrued vacation and sick time.

What your policy should include

If your organization has a bereavement policy that provides for paid or unpaid leave after a death, put it in writing and make employees aware of it.

While most companies offer three days or so for the death of an immediate family member and fewer for other relatives and friends, they also often allow employees to use a combination of paid vacation or sick leave and unpaid time off—sometimes two weeks or more—for grieving and dealing with the affairs of a deceased family member.

Here are 10 tips for keeping your organization’s bereavement policy up-to-date:

1. Spell out which employees are eligible for benefits under the policy—for example, full-time employees only or those who have worked at the firm for a specific period.

2. Address notification. Cover how and when employees should notify their supervisors that they will need to take time off because of a death in the family.

3. Instruct supervisors to routinely grant requests for leave.

4. Make bereavement leave paid, as 90% of organizations that offer it do.

5. Be specific about the amount of leave employees may take for specific losses. Typically, more time is granted for a parent, child or spouse than for an in-law, sibling, grandparent or other relative.

6. Be flexible about who is “immediate family.” An employee who was raised by an aunt or grandparent rather than his or her parents might need the same time off as someone whose parent passes away.

7. Address nontraditional families. If you haven’t already, consider modifying your policy to provide leave in case of the death of an employee’s domestic partner.

8. Accommodate unusual situations—for example, an employee who needs more travel time because his or her deceased family member lived in another country.

9. Set boundaries if necessary. May employees take paid time off to attend the funerals of friends or co-workers? Some organizations offer four hours of paid funeral leave.

10. Consider timing. Will em­­­ployees have to use their leave within a certain time frame after the death? Must the days off be consecutive? Most organizations require both, but not all do. The University of Penn­­syl­­vania, for example, allows bereaved employees to use nonconsecutive days as long as they are within a year of the death.

Bereavement leave legislation

The Parental Bereavement Act would amend the FMLA to allow unpaid leave for bereaved parents regardless of a child’s age when he or she dies. (The FMLA currently defines a child as anyone younger than 18.)

The legislation is co-sponsored by nearly 40 members of Congress. It was introduced in 2012 and re-introduced in the House and Senate on Feb. 5, 2013—the FMLA’s 20th anniversary. Congress has not taken any action on the proposal, despite talk in the Senate of attaching it to other legislation.

A new Oregon law requires businesses with more than 25 employees that are subject to the Oregon Family Leave Act to allow employees two weeks of unpaid leave after the death of a family member, even if more than one death occurs in a year.

In addition to the death of a child, the law also grants leave for the death of a spouse, same-sex domestic partner, parent, parent-in-law, grandparent, grandchild or the parent or child of a same-sex domestic partner.

The law doesn’t require the leave to be paid, and employees must use it within 60 days after the death.