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After more than 1 million Americans died from COVID, most companies still give just a few days of bereavement leave for ‘core’ family members

August 24, 2022, 2:32 PM UTC
There are no federal laws that require employers grant paid time off for employees grieving the death of a family member or loved one.
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There’s world-altering devastation, heartache, and grief to contend with when you lose someone you love. There’s also likely a funeral to plan and countless details, big and small, to handle. There are flights to arrange and the schedules of relatives and friends to juggle. And that’s even before settling their affairs. Is there a house to sell? Life insurance to manage? A will to wrestle with?

It’s a manic haze, and through it all it’s probably hard to remember you still have a day job. And, if you’re like most American workers, you probably have just a handful of paid days off before you’re expected back at your desk.

Bereavement leave policies in the U.S. do not afford many American workers the time and flexibility to grieve the loss of loved ones, especially anyone who’s not an immediate family member.

My partner recently started a new job as a teacher, and she was shocked to learned she’d get just five days off if her mother, father, sibling, the child we don’t have, or I died.

Sadly, that’s actually seen as quite generous for the U.S. Three paid bereavement days for what’s considered “core family” is most common. And the standard bereavement policies at most companies generally don’t apply to non-familial relationships, nor do they adequately address how people grieve.

When my father died during my sophomore year of college, I nearly didn’t return to school after the winter break. There seemed so much to do, not to mention I felt lost. I managed to finish out the year, and then was lucky to be able to spend the summer in Kenya, where I had time to reflect and spread my dad’s ashes. Most people don’t have so much time to address their grief.

The impact of not allowing for people to take the time they need to contend with the death of a loved one is not only detrimental to the emotional well-being of employees, but in turn it could negatively affect the productivity and margins of the companies and organizations they work for.

A recent report on employee benefits from the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that 90% of companies offer some sort of paid time off for bereavement, which is an improvement compared with the 88% in 2018. But the standard policy usually only gives employees between three and seven days off to attend the funeral of core family members before they’ll need to use other PTO. Sometimes employees can take unpaid time using the Family and Medical Leave Act, but it only applies to some workers in some cases in some states. There are no federal laws requiring employers to grant paid time off for employees grieving a death.

Better policies are often the result of first-hand experience

Cara McCarty lost her mother to cancer in 2016, and it changed her life and worldview completely, she says. She worked in HR at a tech company at the time and was fortunate to have flexible bereavement time. But even after the funeral, the grief lingered.

“I just sat at my desk thinking, ‘What am I doing with my life and who am I?'” McCarty tells Fortune.

In 2022, inspired to turn her experience into something meaningful, McCarty launched Betterleave, which works with HR departments to rethink and provide better bereavement care for employees.

“It’s not physically possible to go through this in three days,” McCarty says, adding that she thinks employers should give their workers 10 days of bereavement leave at minimum. “If you only give three days, I guarantee you all they’re doing is planning the funeral [at work].”

McCarty argues too that only looking at bereavement policies through the lens of the death of family members misses a larger, more nuanced picture.

Grief, she says, can be the result of a divorce, suffering a miscarriage, losing a pet, living through a tragedy, or the strains of muddling through a pandemic.

“This is not just a simple policy change,” McCarty says. “It needs to be a cultural change,”

“When companies put a defined period of time on grief it usually backfires. They end up losing more money than if they’d just given [the employee] the time off.”

Policies like bereavement leave seem to change most often when those in a position of power and influence have a close experience that inspires them to push for better benefits. Christina Russo, creative director in Beaufort, S.C., told SHRM that watching a colleague “go through hell” as their partner slowly died from cancer, forced her company to change its approach to bereavement leave.

In 2017, Sheryl Sandberg, who lost her husband in 2015, announced Facebook would provide employees up to 20 days of bereavement leave.

Post-pandemic, better bereavement policies should be a given

The trauma of the pandemic has allowed many of us to reevaluate our relationships to our jobs—and in some cases we’ve seen an increase in companies offering better benefits to support the mental health of their workforce. More than a million people in the U.S. died of COVID over the past two years—and 6.4 million worldwide—it would seem natural that we take a second look at bereavement at work, too.

The World Economic Forum calculated that roughly 4.5% of all U.S. workers were dealing with grief from the loss of a close family member due to COVID-19, and that in turn $942 billion of productivity and business growth was directly impacted by grief.

“You can have a defined policy,” McCarty says, “but really you need to operate in a gray area of compassion.”

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