What Is Bereavement Leave?

Bereavement leave is a type of leave that an employee can take when someone they know, generally a close relative, has died.

An employee can use bereavement leave for a variety of purposes, including making funeral arrangements, attending a funeral, taking care of post-death tasks, and grieving. While many employers offer their employees bereavement leave, there is currently no federal law requiring this type of leave.

There is only one state, Oregon, that requires employers to provide their employees with bereavement leave. In this state, businesses that have more than 25 workers must provide bereavement leave to eligible employees. An eligible employee is a person who has worked at least 180 days and has averaged 250 work hours per week during the 180 days. Two weeks of leave must be provided for each deceased family member, and the leave must be taken within 60 days of the death.

In states other than Oregon, practices and policies related to bereavement leave are at the discretion of the employer. There are some circumstances where an employer may be required to follow established leave policy, such as bereavement leave practices that are outlined in employee contracts or are included in collective bargaining agreements.

Requesting and granting bereavement leave can be very complicated because it requires blurring the lines between personal and professional life. While an employer may not want to deal with the impact of a missing employee, grief can make it difficult for an employee to perform their normal job duties. Employers that provide bereavement leave can vary widely in how much time they allow, and whether the time will be paid.

If an employer does not provide bereavement leave, then employees may need to use their mandated sick leave when a family member passes away. The rules established by the U.S. Office of People Management (OPM) allows employees 104 hours or 13 days of sick leave per year. This sick leave can be used to:

  • Make arrangements that will allow them to attend a funeral
  • Care for a family member who is either physically or mentally incapacitated, or is unable to care for themselves due to childbirth
  • Help a family member who needs to receive dental, medical, or optical care.

The OPM defines a family member as a:

  • Child or stepchild
  • Spouses, including same-sex and domestic partners
  • Parents, step-parents, and parents-in-law
  • Grandparents
  • Siblings
  • Foster children and guardianship relationships

Based on the rules established by the OPM, employees are also allowed to take up to three workdays off to arrange for, or attend the funeral of an immediate family member who was killed in a combat zone while serving in the Armed Forces. Additionally, firefighters and police officers are entitled to paid time off if they need to attend a colleague's funeral after they have been killed in the line of duty.

Employers should be sure to have a clear policy that dictates the amount of leave employees can take when a family member has died. The policy should include specific language that defines whether an employee needs to be full-time to take bereavement leave and if they will be paid for their time off. A business's bereavement policy should also be clear if any leave will be granted for loved ones who are not immediate family members.

Most companies provide three paid bereavement days for the death of an immediate family member and one day for close friends and other relatives, although this can change depending on the circumstances. Some organizations willingly provide their employees with unpaid bereavement days if they are required to handle legal issues related to the deceased.

If the family member died in a state that is far away from where the employee works, bereavement leave can be even more complicated. Complex legal affairs can also make bereavement leave more difficult and extensive. Employers may need to help their employees in these circumstances so that they can tend to their personal affairs without putting their job at risk.

The FMLA and Bereavement Leave

Some employers are required to give their employees as much as 12 weeks of yearly unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This leave can be used for both family and health reasons. Although the FMLA does not specifically cover bereavement leave, employees may be able to use some of their mandatory FMLA leave after the death of a family member.

FMLA leave, for instance, can be used if an employee needs to take time off to provide care for a dying relative. Similarly, employees who are struggling to deal with their grief following the death of a loved one might use FMLA leave to attend counseling sessions.

While FMLA leave is unpaid, employers are legally obligated to continue their employee's health insurance coverage while they are on leave.

Notification of Leave

There should be a system in place that will allow your employees to easily notify you if they need to take bereavement leave. Many employers choose to use the same system that is in place for other leave requests. However, because bereavement leave is a very sensitive topic, you may want to provide your employees a method for requesting bereavement leave after hours.

To make sure that employers are not abusing bereavement leave, you may want to request proof they are using their leave for its intended purpose. For example, you could request an obituary, a prayer card, or program from the funeral services. You could also request basic information about the deceased, including their name, date, and city of death, and how they are related to your employee.

Small Business Policies

Many small businesses have a tight-knit, family-like relationship between employer and employee. Because of these close relationships, small businesses tend to offer more bereavement days than larger organizations. However, a 2009 survey found that 90 percent of employers offered an average of three bereavement days to their employees.

Despite their increased flexibility, small businesses should make sure to have a bereavement policy in place so that their operations are not disrupted when an employee takes leave.

If you need help with determining bereavement leave, you can post your legal needs on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top five percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law, and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Stripe, and Twilio.