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A Lack Of Bereavement Leave Is Injustice


Grief is trauma. It should be treated in the workplace as such.

Several years ago my father died suddenly on my first day of vacation. I had been working over 60 hours a week for a non-profit for three years. I was regularly told I was an incredible employee, often going far above and beyond what was expected of me. I had just been promoted.

A week after my father died I returned to work. I was in shock, I had just barely begun to grieve. I was tired and I managed my pain badly. I began having panic attacks. I desperately needed a break. A month later I asked if there was any way I could have another few days of vacation, as I’d spent my previous vacation planning his sudden memorial and was emotionally and physically exhausted. I was told no. I trudged along, worked ridiculous hours, didn’t have the time or energy to process my grief. Eventually, I was fired. I was told I had become too inattentive, made too many mistakes.

I told myself I was lucky I didn’t yet have a family to feed. I was lucky to qualify for unemployment, which just barely allowed me to eat and live while I continued to grieve and look for work. Not everyone is so lucky.

There are no laws in the United States protecting workers who are grieving. In the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act there is no specific, mandated provision for bereavement leave. And while the FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) requires certain employers to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid family and medical leave to eligible employees, this is only unpaid leave, and the only employees eligible are those who work for private employers with 50 or more employees for each working day during each of 20 or more weeks in the current or preceding year.

So if you work for a company of 45 people, you aren’t even covered for unpaid leave. If your company has 1,000 people for almost four months out of the year, you are not covered. If you are a part-time employee, you are not covered. To deal with this gap, a lot of companies have their own policies when it comes to grief. And a lot don’t.

I trudged along, worked ridiculous hours, didn't have the time or energy to process my grief. Eventually, I was fired. Click To Tweet

Although most professionals recognize that grief is trauma that can affect people physically as well as emotionally, employers often don’t take this into account while making policies regarding leave. This is common when it comes to death, as if we are afraid we will speak it into existence, death is an experience that we do not address until it is absolutely necessary. Even then it is in hushed tones, and in the U.S. it is like we are embarrassed by our grief. The irony of course is that it is an experience we are all guaranteed to have. We will all lose those important to us. We will all die.

Just as employees should be expected to take time off to recover from the physical trauma of surgery, employees must be given time to heal from the very real trauma that is grief. But instead, people return to work, like I did, distracted with the pain of losing someone, lacking sleep from planning memorials, lacking money from unexpected travel, in desperate need of rest. It is not ok that we have to be financially well off to have time to grieve. You shouldn’t have to earn time to heal.

We are not all affected equally by this injustice. A complete lack of grieving time in non-salaried positions disproportionately affects Women, PoC, and poor people, and especially those who find themselves at the intersection of all three oppressed groups.

Just as wages are not equal for everyone, the same is true when it comes to benefits. Part time employees rarely get paid leave, and when they do it is short compared to how long it takes for most to heal from the trauma of death, which according to most experts is at least 3 months to a year or more to begin to feel some semblance of normality. About 59% of all wage and salary workers in the United States are paid an hourly rate. This means that almost 60% of our employed citizens aren’t legally required to have unpaid leave right off the bat. And most families can’t afford a period of a provider not getting paid anyway.

The irony of course is that it is an experience we are all guaranteed to have. We will all lose those important to us. We will all die. Click To Tweet

41 million people in the U.S. live in poverty. When you are living check to check, you cannot afford to miss work for more than a funeral, if that. But a funeral does not adequately prepare someone for life without a spouse, or for the depression that can follow a parent dying. Simply put, it isn’t enough. Merely taking the time to grieve can pull families even deeper into poverty.

What happens when you already live below the poverty level and someone close to you, like your partner, dies? Not only are you suddenly missing your partner’s income, you are expected to continue to work to earn your own income like nothing has happened. The average lifespan is about five years longer for women than men in the U.S., and about seven years longer worldwide. Statistically it is likely women will experience the death of a man close to them in their lifetimes. If a woman relies on that man for income, she can now left on her own to fend financially.

Women, especially women of color, are more affected by a lack of bereavement leave, as they are more likely to be single heads of households with children. It is no longer the case that almost all houses are relying on a man’s income. In 2015, 42% of all households with children under 18 had a woman earning most or all of the household income. More than 80% of Black mothers bring in 40% or more of their families’ income. And yet there are almost double the number of women in the United States working part time as men. This means that women are disproportionately affected not only by less income but also by a lack of benefits, including bereavement leave.

Oppression happens in a number of ways. Not giving people time to heal from trauma means they must fight for a way forward through other oppressive systems with the extra burden of being hurt. Black people are 13% of the U.S. population, but 23% of those officially in poverty and 39% of the homeless.

Not only is there a clear wage gap based on race, it has been found that this gap follows employees from position to position. Because a WoC made less at her last three positions, she will make less at her current position. Pairing this with the likelihood she does not have benefits including bereavement leave, and you have systemic oppression that can affect a family, and generations to come.

It benefits everyone to have bereavement leave. When employees are fully rested and supported, productivity goes up. Employees are less likely to quit their jobs when given adequate vacations and sick time. This is true for most benefits. Additionally, it costs money to hire a new employee. Nurturing and adding to your current employee’s skillset with new training is much less expensive than utilizing your HR department to conduct interviews, hire someone new, and train that new employee all the while covering an empty position. Allowing employees time they deserve to heal ultimately costs less.

Not giving people time to heal from trauma means they must fight for a way forward through other oppressive systems with the extra burden of being hurt. Click To Tweet

Bereavement leave can be done well. In Sweden, every employee can have up to ten days of paid bereavement leave a year. In Canada, “When a member of an employee’s immediate family dies, the employee is entitled to leave on any normal working day that falls within the three-day period immediately following the day the death occurred.” As long as the employee has been continuously employed for three months, they are also eligible to be paid for the days they are out, up to three days.

Everyone dies. Everyone experiences the death of loved ones at some point in their lives. Our fear is doing us a disservice. We are underprepared for the inevitable. We must have systems in place to allow for necessary healing. We must have policies that make leave available for workers who are mourning, because it affects us all. A lack of bereavement leave is oppression and it must be addressed.