Talent   //   January 9, 2024

How new trauma-leave laws will help employees handle ‘logistics and emotions of loss’

Showing up at work while dealing with a family bereavement or other traumatic life event at the same time, can be a soul-crushing experience. Now, more laws are beginning to acknowledge that and ensure employers enforce better paid-leave policies to support employees. At least in some states.

Illinois and Minnesota are leading the charge, having rolled out clear rules for the exact amount of time employees can take off and whether they’ll be paid or not when dealing with a death in the family, and a range of other, often traumatic, life events. New laws went into effect Jan. 1 in those states.

Illinois has two new laws covering bereavement. The first requires employers to give up to two weeks of unpaid leave to staff when a family member dies due to a violent crime. The other outlines time off for staff when their child dies by suicide — 12 weeks of unpaid leave for those working at large companies with 250 or more full-time employees, and six weeks off unpaid if they work for an employer with less than 250 employees. That time off can be taken all at once or incrementally throughout the year following the loss.

In Minnesota, another new law stipulates a standard for paid leave for staff with a sick family member, if they are helping someone in a domestic violence situation or facing another emergency.

“In recent years, we’ve seen significant development in state laws regarding protected leaves, with California, Illinois and Minnesota being notable examples,” said Natalie Pierce, partner and chair of the employment & labor group at law firm Gunderson Dettmer. Employers should review and update their policies to make sure they are complying, she said. 

“What we are now seeing is a trend towards both organizations and states recognizing that in order for employees to be fully effective when they return to work, they need more time to handle both the logistics and emotions of loss,” said Christy Pruitt-Haynes, who has more than 20 years of experience in HR and leadership strategy and now serves as distinguished faculty at the NeuroLeadership Institute.

“What we are now seeing is a trend towards both organizations and states recognizing that in order for employees to be fully effective when they return to work, they need more time to handle both the logistics and emotions of loss."
Christy Pruitt-Haynes distinguished faculty at the NeuroLeadership Institute.

Over 80% of companies have their own bereavement leave policies that typically give staff just three to five days off, and can be either paid or unpaid when dealing with the loss of a family member, according to HR software firm Paycor. 

“It is not enough time to handle arrangements, let alone start the grieving process. Unfortunately though, historically, that has been the standard of what most organizations have done,” Pruitt-Haynes said.

Oftentimes staff can stack time off allotted through bereavement policies with their vacation and sick time, “But the reality is that it is not a vacation, and to have to use vacation time for something like that honestly feels like a bit of a slap in the face,” she said. 

Some companies have been more lenient, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has taken over a million lives in the U.S. alone. And some companies have changed policies to be more generous. Facebook changed its bereavement policy to give staff 20 days off after the loss of a family member in 2017.

But “state-mandated bereavement leave is only recently emerging as a form of protected leave,” said Peter Rahbar, an employment attorney and founder of the law firm Rahbar Group.

Pruitt-Haynes lost a loved one unexpectedly and recieved the news in the middle of a workday not long ago, and her employer’s policy stated she’d be allowed three days off. But she was able to get an exception and got two weeks off. Since then her employer has been “looking at adjusting policies to make that the standard as opposed to the exception, so we’ve seen a lot of companies that have done that, but now thankfully the laws are starting to catch up with what’s necessary,” she said. 

Another issue is whether time off taken for bereavement purposes, or to deal with other distressing life events, will be paid or not. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have laws around paid leave as they relate to care taking responsibilities for family members in need.

President Joe Biden has pushed for expanded paid family and medical leave federally though attempts to pass those measures have not yet been successful. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 allows workers to take 12 weeks off unpaid without risk of losing their jobs when facing medical or family emergencies. But nearly half of workers aren’t eligible for that leave, which requires they work for a company with at least 50 employees and have been in their roles for at least 12 months.

Navigating which rules apply and how to get benefits through complicated government channels can be a major hurdle, said Reshma Saujani, CEO and founder of Moms First, an advocacy group. Her organization recently launched PaidLeave.AI, a tool harnessing artificial intelligence to help clarify what rules apply to employees in New York State and help them through the process. 

New York State has laws covering paid leave for employees who need to take care of a family member with a serious health condition, which can include mental illnesses, and another covering personal medical leave for staff experiencing a serious physical health condition themselves requiring time off work. 

The platform will soon expand to include other states’ rules and be available to employees needing those resources elsewhere, too. Providing those open channels of information is important as staff may feel distraught and uncomfortable going to their HR department to explain their circumstances and ask for help.

“If you have a sick family member or you have a bereavement issue, you don't often walk into your HR person's office and say, ‘Hey, am I eligible to lose my job?’”
Reshma Saujani, CEO and founder of advocacy group Moms First.

“If you have a sick family member or you have a bereavement issue, you don’t often walk into your HR person’s office and say, ‘Hey, am I eligible to lose my job?’” Saujani said. 

As companies rethink their individual bereavement and leave of absence policies, some more progressive ones are starting to recognize they should also extend them to include losing other loved ones to whom staff aren’t necessarily legally bound or biologically related.

“People’s chosen family matter just as much as their biological family,” Pruitt-Haynes said. “The emotions are still there, the connection is still there, so if that individual were to pass away for whatever reason, it’s still going to impact that employee in the same way.”

“Really smart and strategic organizations know that having an employee there who isn’t focused on work is rather pointless. If you are thinking about the long-term retention of your team members, it’s much better to pour into them not only professionally through things like professional development but also through emotional support during a very difficult time,” she said. “The reality is had I not been able to take that time off, I probably would have just left.”