We hear often about maternity leave and the period of time employees tend to take off from work when they have a new child. But what happens when employees need to take days off for less joyous occasions like the death of a family member or loved one?
Bereavement leave refers to the time an employee takes away from work as a result of the death of a family member or loved one. If you’ve ever lost someone close to you, you know that during the days after a death, you need time to grieve and attend (or perhaps help plan) a funeral. You might also need time off to attend a wake or a shiva and spend some extra time with friends and family.
Bereavement leave can be a tricky topic for both employers and employees to navigate because it forces people to mix their professional lives with their very personal ones, and it can feel especially difficult to deal with logistics and facing work when you’re grieving.
What if you need to take additional time off from work because you lost someone close to you, but you’ve used all of your PTO or vacation days and sick time? Do you have to take unpaid time off so that you can fly across the country to attend the funeral for your close relative? Do you have to essentially call in sick because someone you know passed away, but you don’t feel like you’ll be granted any paid time off to grieve or go to the funeral? Or do you need to request a leave of absence?
There’s no federal law in the U.S. requiring companies to offer funeral leave or paid or unpaid leave specifically for bereavement; as the U.S. Department of Labor puts it, “The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not require payment for time not worked, including attending a funeral. This type of benefit is generally a matter of agreement between an employer and an employee (or the employee's representative).”
While there’s no federal bereavement leave law in the U.S. some companies do have a bereavement leave policy.
Oregon is currently the only state that requires employers to offer bereavement leave; companies with more than 25 employees must allow eligible employees (those who have worked at the company for at least 180 days and have worked, on average, at least 25 hours per week for at least 180 days) up to two weeks of leave for each family member who dies (as long as the leave is taken within 60 days of the death of the family member).
In Illinois, there’s a Child Bereavement Leave Act that requires companies that employ 50+ people to offer employees up to 10 days off following the death of a child.
In all other states, it is up to employers to decide on what they offer to employees who are grieving if anything. So, as you can imagine, taking leave for bereavement is an experience that can be wildly different for you than it was for your best friend (especially if one of you lives in Oregon!).
If you’re wondering whether you get bereavement leave in California, for example, it would all depend on what your employer’s policy is; there’s no regulated California bereavement leave law. Your eligibility for bereavement or funeral leave might also depend on whether you’re a full-time employee, part-time employee, or freelancer. Some companies only offer these kinds of benefits to full-time employees.
We all hope that our bosses will be understanding and compassionate when we experience a loss, but not every office offers a grief support group or the kind of individual counseling you might need; your experience may depend on your employer and your type of job (whether or not you’re a full-time employee might impact your experience).
Among those employers that do provide bereavement leave, the amount of time off (and whether/how much of that time off is paid) varies widely.
Facebook, for example, recently doubled the amount of paid leave it offers to employees dealing with loss; people who work at Facebook get 20 days of paid leave to grieve when they lose an immediate family member, and they get up to 10 days if an extended family member passes away.
Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg explained in a Facebook post why the company altered its policy and why she believes other employers should be compassionate when an employee requests bereavement time to mourn a family member death.
“I hope more companies will join us and others in making similar moves because America’s families deserve support,” she wrote, adding that when her husband Dave died suddenly in 2015, she was tremendously grateful “to work at a company that provides bereavement leave and flexibility. I needed both to start my recovery. I know how rare that is, and I believe strongly that it shouldn’t be,” she wrote.
Yet some companies have no official policy in place when it comes to bereavement leave, so employees may be granted much less or no paid time off for these purposes.
Because there is no federal law requiring bereavement leave or paid bereavement leave, it is up to companies to create their own policies on what to pay employees — if at all — and for how long.
Typically, companies allow regular, full-time employees to take up to three days of paid leave following the death of an immediate family member. This allows employees to attend, or plan, a funeral for a deceased loved one.
Some companies will allow for one day of bereavement leave to attend the funeral of a non-immediate family member or loved one.
Of course, this is just a sample bereavement leave policy, and the actual policy will depend on your employer and plan.
Employers that do have a bereavement leave policy may differentiate between the time off given for an immediate family member’s death and an extended family member’s death. They may also have different regulations for funeral leave for a non-family member’s death.
Since there is no widespread regulation in place, your company may define immediate family members differently than another company might. While oftentimes we think of “immediate family” as being a spouse, parent, child, or sibling, in the context of bereavement leave, some companies might include in the definition what we may otherwise think of an extended family: grandparents, a first cousin, etc.
In some situations, bereavement leave policies will also include in-laws. But in many situations, aunts, uncles, and cousins are not considered immediate family.
If a loved one has passed away and you need to travel, you might be looking for airlines that offer bereavement fares. Last minute flights can be extremely expensive, and a bereavement fare might make the experience a smoother, and cheaper, one. But in recent years, bereavement fares have slowly slipped away. That doesn't mean you should lose hope, however!
Here's a list of airlines that offer bereavement fares:
The policy for each airline may vary, so it's important you check their website and call their offices to find the fares that will work for your situation.
While your employer may not have a specific policy designed for bereavement, employees do get sick leave entitlement that takes into account the fact that people may need to take time off when a family member dies. As per the U.S. Office of People Management (OPM), an employee can use 104 hours (13 days) of sick leave each leave year when:
What does the OPM mean by “family member”? It could be a “spouse; parents; parents-in-law; children; brothers; sisters; grandparents; grandchildren; step-parents; stepchildren; foster parents; foster children; guardianship relationships; same sex and opposite sex domestic partners; and spouses or domestic partners of the aforementioned, as applicable.”
The OPM also states that an employee can take off up to three workdays to make arrangements for or to attend the funeral of an immediate family member who has died as a result of serving as a member of the Armed Forces in a combat zone. The three days do not necessarily have to be consecutive.
In addition, according to the OPM, a federal law enforcement officer or firefighter can take paid time off to attend the funeral of a colleague who has died in the line of duty.
If your employer doesn’t have a formal bereavement policy, they may work with employees on a case-by-case basis to determine what the employee’s needs are and what they’re able to offer. You may also have a specified number of vacation, PTO, or personal days that you’re able to use for this purpose.
What is FMLA, and how does FMLA work? If you’re not familiar with the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), here’s what you need to know: it’s a federal law that may provide you with unpaid yet job-protected time off from work for up to 12 weeks. The law typically affords this time to employees who are unable to work because they or a loved one have a serious medical condition. Parents who do not get maternity leave or paternity leave sometimes use FMLA for that purpose.
What does FMLA eligibility entail? FMLA coverage does not apply to all U.S. employees. If you’re not sure whether you work at an FMLA covered employer, here are some things to know: FMLA eligibility depends on the kind of company you work at and the size of your employer. Government employees and private employees who work at companies with at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius of their physical workspace are eligible. You also must have worked at your company for at least 12 months and 1,250 hours to qualify. If you don’t work in one of these capacities, keep in mind that certain state laws may allow you time off and some kind of job protection.
FMLA typically does not extend to include bereavement, unless an eligible employee has a family member die in active military duty. And, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, a bill introduced in March 2017 would change the rules so that FMLA would apply to parents who are grieving the death of a child.
Employers that do have some sort of bereavement policy likely have it articulated in an employee handbook. Perhaps they grant a certain amount of paid time off and some additional unpaid leave for employees who are grieving.
A clearly outlined policy should define how much time employees are eligible to take if an immediate family member (or distant relative, depending on the employer’s terms) passes away. The verbiage should specify whether all employees are eligible or if they have to be full-time, and it should indicate how much time, if any, will be paid. The policy should also define family member and should make clear what, if anything, is granted if an employee is grieving a loved one who’s not defined as a family member.
Any thorough policy will likely add that a human resource staff member or the employee’s manager might discuss any specific provisions on a case-by-case basis.
Figuring out how to ask for bereavement leave can be tough. You’re likely in an emotional state, and the last thing you want to worry about is being judged for missing work. Like most requests for time off, the way in which you ask your employer can depend a lot on what kind of company you work for and what your relationship is with whomever you’re asking. Larger companies might have more regulations and policies regarding asking for time off (perhaps you need to put in a formal request) — or you might work in a casual office where there’s less of a specific process in place. Either way, it’s always a good idea to put your request into writing — whether a formal letter or email or Slack message — so that your boss or manager can easily keep track and remember the specifics of your request.
Again, you may or may not need a formal bereavement leave letter, depending on how your company functions in terms of communication style and formalities. But there’s no harm in writing a brief bereavement leave letter, and whether or not you need one at your current employer, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with a sample letter format for requesting bereavement leave should you ever need to write such a letter in the future.
Like most business letters, bereavement leave letters can — and should — be brief and to the point. All you need to state in your letter is why you are requesting leave, including details on who died and their relationship to you, on what date they passed away, anything you might already know about funeral arrangements, how much time you are requesting to take off, and contact information that your colleagues might refer to during your leave.
Here is a sample bereavement leave letter that you might use when requesting bereavement leave:
222 Main St.
City, State, Zip Code
Letter Recipient’s Name
Letter Recipient’s Title (perhaps CEO or HR Director)
222 Main St.
City, State, Zip Code
Dear Letter Recipient,
I am writing this letter to formally request bereavement leave. My father, who moved in with my family X years ago when he fell ill, passed away last night. I would like to request time off to mourn and make funeral arrangements beginning XXX through XXX.
I will do my best to tie up any loose ends before then and make sure my team is in good hands. Should you need to reach me while I’m away, I’d prefer that you reach out by email instead of by phone.
I appreciate your understanding.
In many cases, an informal email will suffice. As with the formal letter, you can be brief and to the point:
Hi (manager or HR representative),
My (relationship to the person, e.g. father or mother) passed away, and I'm requesting X days of bereavement leave to grieve and make funeral arrangements. I will be out of the office starting X date and expect to return on X date. Should my plans change, I will let you know. During this time, I'd prefer that you contact me with anything urgent by email rather than phone.
(your first name)
If you'd prefer to leave a voicemail or have a conversation with your manager by phone, you can certainly do so; you may, however, find that email is less nerve-wracking, especially if you're in an emotional state. Here's a script you can use to call your manager to request bereavement leave:
Hi (first name of manager). This is (your full name). I'm calling because my (relationship of the person to you) passed away, and I'd like to request X days of bereavement leave starting tomorrow.
(This, of course, is how you'll start the conversation. Chances are, your manager will respond with condolences and keep the phone call brief.)
The definition of compassionate leave is no different from that of bereavement leave. Countries outside the U.S. may term more frequently. In the U.S., like with bereavement leave, the compassionate leave rules and compassionate leave entitlements depend on your employer.