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Federal law gives many workers the right to unpaid leave, if they need to care for a sick family member. If someone in your immediate family dies, though, you have no federal right to take time off to mourn. It's up to your employer whether you can take bereavement leave; it's also up to your employer whether it has to be a close relative, such as your parent, or can be someone more distant, like your great aunt.
"Immediate family" isn't a term with a fixed legal meaning like "spouse" or "biological child." Different federal and state laws define it differently. If your employer offers bereavement leave for immediate family, it's usually up to the company which of your relatives that covers. The employer also defines "family member" or "extended family" if those are the terms the company prefers.
Bereavement and Law
Workers covered by the federal Family Medical Leave Act can take up to 12 weeks unpaid leave a year for medical reasons. Those include sickness, pregnancy and birth, bonding with a new child and caring for immediate family. The FMLA defines immediate family as spouses, children and parents. The law doesn't provide any coverage for bereavement leave, AKA compassionate leave.
State law doesn't help most workers either. Oregon, in 2014, became the first and to date only state to include bereavement law under the state equivalent of the FMLA. FMLA covers employers with at least 50 workers; Oregon law applies to companies with only 25 employees.
Like FMLA, covered Oregon workers can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Unlike FMLA, this can include up to two weeks of bereavement leave when a family member dies. Oregon law lists grandparents, grandchildren, parents-in-law, same-gender domestic partners and children and parents of same-gender domestic partners as immediate family.
Employer Bereavement Policies
Although employers outside of Oregon aren't required to offer compassionate leave, many do. One survey found three-quarters of the respondents had a bereavement leave policy, offering five days, on average. One fifth of the respondents said they were willing to improvise, if employees need more time or special arrangements.
Giving employees bereavement leave can be more complicated than leave to care for a sick child. Sick leave doesn't normally include time to weep for the sick person, but that's part of the purpose of bereavement leave. Different people react to death and loss differently. One person might want back to work ASAP after the funeral so that they can distract themselves from grief. Another employee might be shell-shocked for weeks over the death of a much more distant relative. Providing employees with what they need in a time of crisis is likely to increase their loyalty to the firm.
Legally, it's safest for employers to have a written bereavement policy and to apply it consistently. If the policy is entirely at the employer's discretion, that can lead to charges of discrimination or unfairness: why did one worker mourning their father get five days while another employee in the same situation only got two? A written policy avoids that. Defining immediate family in writing is likewise safer than, say, deciding who gets leaved based on how unhappy they look. Employees who work under a contract or a union agreement get any bereavement leave guaranteed by the terms of the deal.
Employers can choose to offer compassionate leave as its own thing or allow employees to use sick leave, vacation time or paid time off for bereavement. The federal government, for example, allows its employees to use up to 13 days of sick leave a year as bereavement leave, when a family member dies. The definition of "family member" includes children, parents, spouses, parents-in-law, siblings, step-parents and foster children, among others.
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