When it comes to bereavement leave, the U.S. is unspeakably cruel

As of 2012, only 60% of private-sector workers were granted paid bereavement leave

Published September 30, 2019 7:30AM (EDT)

This article originally appeared in In These Times.

On March 19, 2018, Cindy Christensen took her husband, who had suddenly fallen ill, to the emergency room. Within one or two days, Christensen estimates, her husband was diagnosed with lymphoma. He was promptly transferred to a hospital that could provide more specialized treatment.

At the time, Christensen had been a unionized production worker at a Freudenberg-NOK Sealing Technologies plant in Necedah, Wisconsin, for over 30 years. Before the diagnosis, she knew she'd have to be available during her husband's hospital stay, and she arranged to use paid time off she'd accumulated. Shortly after the diagnosis, she began to consider the arrangements she'd have to make with her employer while her husband received treatment.

Christensen says she filed a request for unpaid leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), thinking she'd use the time to be with her husband for chemotherapy treatments and other medical appointments after she exhausted her paid leave. The FMLA of 1993 guarantees 12 workweeks of "unpaid, job-protected" leave in a 12-month period for family-related caretaking matters for eligible employees. In Wisconsin, employees qualify if they've worked for an organization for at least 52 consecutive weeks and for at least 1,000 hours in the preceding 52-week period; that organization must also employ at least 50 permanent staff members in order for workers to qualify.

"In that week's time, my husband got worse and worse," the now-retired Christensen tells In These Times. "He developed sepsis, and his organs shut down." On March 26, 2018 he died.  She says she canceled the FMLA leave, finding it no longer necessary and fearing it would entail a slog of paperwork and phone calls that would aggravate her distress.

In the wake of her husband's death, Christensen says she was given three days' paid bereavement leave, per her contract under the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE), with Good Friday, a paid holiday, following on March 30. She estimates she missed two additional days that weren't covered by paid leave; each of these days resulted in disciplinary "points." Reaching a certain number of points, she explains, would be grounds for firing. Christensen says she returned to work the following Wednesday, after seven days off.

"I was very close to losing my job," she tells In These Times. "When things like this happen, you would like to take some time off. There's so much stuff that you have to do. I would've liked to have taken more time off, but [Freudenberg-NOK] told me that I could not, unless I wanted to use the Family and Medical Leave Act," she says.

Christensen hoped, as an employee of over 30 years, she could devise an alternative with Freudenberg-NOK, in the form of unpaid personal leave of approximately three days. The company had given unpaid leave previously to grieving employees, she says. To Christensen's surprise, she recounts, the company denied her request, explaining that a broken water heater would warrant such leave, but her husband's sudden illness and death wouldn't.

"My husband was gone within a week's time, and that was just a shock in itself. We didn't know he had cancer, then we found out, and a week later, he's gone. That was a lot," Christensen says. "I thought they [Freudenberg-NOK] were going to be more kind, but they weren't. It was a battle...They were just nasty about it."

No right to bereavement leave

Christensen's ordeal offers a glimpse into the state of bereavement leave for workers in the United States.

Bereavement leave isn't federally mandated for any workers; thus, it's largely a matter of whether employers choose to provide it. According to the Department of Labor, the Fair Labor Standards Act, which sets standards for minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping and youth employment, "does not require payment for time not worked, including attending a funeral." Laws vary by state: Oregon is the only U.S. state to legally require bereavement leave for qualifying employees, though said leave can be unpaid. Meanwhile, some states, such as California, legally require paid bereavement leave for certain public-sector workers, such as state employees.

The extent to which bereavement leave is available is largely limited to the attendance and, to some extent, the arrangement of a memorial service for a loved one. This informs the length of bereavement leave given to workers: Across the private sector, paid bereavement leave typically spans three to five days for full-time employees following the loss of an immediate family member, and one day following the loss of an extended family member or close friend, when it's offered.

As of 2012, only 60% of private-sector workers were granted paid bereavement leave, per a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Part-time employees were at a particular disadvantage: 29% received paid leave, compared with 71% of full-time employees. (More recent statistics aren't available, nor are numbers for public-sector jobs.) Additionally, there are no bereavement-leave protections in place for workers in the informal and gig economies, such as nannies and Uber drivers; in most cases, this remains a matter of the employer's jurisdiction.

In some major capitalist countries other than the U.S., bereavement leave is somewhat more substantial. In Canada, bereavement leave of at least three days is guaranteed for employees under the Canada Labour Code, with pay contingent on duration of employment. The U.K. classifies leave for an emergency involving a dependent as a right, but doesn't require that it be paid, and doesn't guarantee bereavement leave specifically. France mandates three days' paid leave for the death of a spouse, partner or close relative, and five days for the death of a child for all workers via the French Labor Code.

In recent years, certain high-profile companies have broadened their bereavement leave policies. In 2017, Facebook augmented its bereavement-leave allowance to up to 20 days following the death of an immediate family member, and up to 10 for an extended family member. This happened shortly after the company's COO, Sheryl Sandberg, was suddenly widowed. MasterCard and SurveyMonkey followed suit with comparable policies, citing Facebook's precedent.

At the time of these announcements, corporate media outlets lavished these companies with praise, depicting their actions as beacons of hope for the U.S. labor landscape. What the press failed to ask, however, was why labor policies affecting the mental health of millions of workers should be so fragmented and piecemeal — and why the most generous versions of them should hinge upon the impulses of immensely wealthy executives.

The repercussions of trauma and loss

The answer to these questions, of course, is that these policies are the product of decades of neoliberal governance, wherein employers are given considerable latitude regarding labor practices. Employers benefit from the fact that universal paid bereavement leave isn't federally mandated: This gives them more control over how much they invest in their workers, and further legal license to ignore their workers' mental and physical health requirements. Thus, because federal labor law doesn't guarantee protections for bereft workers, those workers' wellbeing often suffers.

This was the case for Alex Blank Millard, who, several years ago, lost her father suddenly on the first day of her weeklong vacation from her job at an organization that provided no bereavement leave. (Millard chose not to name the organization.) Millard says that before her vacation, she routinely worked 60 to 70 hours per week and was commended for her job performance. When she returned to work grief-stricken, she was unable to concentrate.

"I spent the whole [vacation] week planning a memorial, dealing with family, figuring out logistics," she tells In These Times. "I had to ask permission to take one extra day at the end of the week. I came back, and I was understandably a mess." Millard wrote about her experience in 2018 for the now-defunct publication The Establishment.

Upon her return, Millard says she was expected to resume her regular workload and schedule. She subsequently requested additional unpaid leave. Her employer denied the request, she says, asserting that Millard simply had too much work to do, and placed her on a two-week "performance improvement plan" in order to more closely monitor her work. Millard, who'd worked there for three years, continued to seek leave over the course of two or three months, by her estimate.

"They wouldn't [provide] that, and then I was fired," she says. "I was fired for distraction[-related] things, like, 'Took too long on a project.'"

An employer's assumption that a worker can return to the workplace with their normal labor capacity intact, immediately following a life-altering form of trauma, is a testament to the necessity of bereavement leave, according to therapist and licensed clinical social worker Melissa Lopez, who specializes in grief counseling. "[Bereavement leave] is crucial. Grief is not only emotional; it's mental, it's physical, it's spiritual in many ways. You're trying to adjust to all these things, and work is asking you to not only show up, but be super productive. That causes more stress."

Experiences such as Millard's are symptomatic of a larger problem, according to therapist and mental-health educator Araya Baker. "I don't think three to five days is sufficient. I think that dismisses the emotional repercussions of grief that an employee might be dealing with. Insufficient bereavement periods speak to the fact that capitalism has conditioned us to accept workplaces with a toxic, unhealthy culture," he says.

"We romanticize the ability to repress pain and to forego help and rest," Baker adds. "But we cannot always simply deactivate the part of our brains that cause our bodies and minds to grieve, simply because we're at work."

Lopez and Baker state that the individual grief process varies significantly depending on the mourner's relationship with the deceased, cause of death and other factors. Research shows that acute grief, which commonly results shortly after the death of a loved one, can result in depression, trouble sleeping, feelings of anger and bitterness, anxiety, loss of appetite and general aches and pains — all of which can interfere with, and be exacerbated by — the need to perform a job.

And while there's no quantifiable, universal grief period, research also shows that traumatic life events can require a recovery period of at least several weeks to months. A 2017 study in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, for example, found that older adults who had lost a spouse saw a reduction in their stress after an eight-week program of physical and mental care.

"There should definitely be a conversation about how to accommodate someone's grief and how to help them adapt both outside of the workplace, but also in the context of professional space, because those things often go hand in hand," says Baker.

Whose grief counts

In addition to failing to account for the psychological and physiological process of coping with loss, current standards for workplace bereavement leave policies also run the risk of hierarchizing grief and those who mourn.

For example, the standard three-day leave period for immediate family "is dismissive of folks, especially in the LGBTQ community, where a lot of folks have chosen family" because their families have rejected them, says Lopez.

She adds, "A lot of communities of color grow up with extended family. You have uncles and aunts and cousins, everybody who is as close, many times, as immediate family members. But if it's not an immediate family member, you [often] don't even get those three days. It completely dismisses the impact of grief for many people."

These forms of discrimination also surface for workers who don't have the ability to take extended unpaid leave. Even for those whose work allows unpaid leave to heal from loss, the lack of income disproportionately affects those living in financial precarity, effectively stratifying the grief process.

Thus, at a time when a reported 40% of people living in the U.S. can't cover a $400 emergency expense, and another reported 40% are one paycheck away from poverty, unpaid leave presents many people with an unfair choice: Take time to grieve but lose desperately needed income, or return to work and repress the repercussions of an extremely raw trauma.

In either case, workers' mental health suffers. "Financial stress can compound grief, and make the recovery itself traumatic," says Baker.

"You're not going to have low-income folks have the ability to take off that much time, even if it's given to them [as unpaid leave]," says Lopez. "That's just not a reality. That's the sad part. Who gets to break down? Who gets to just check out?"

The union struggle for bereavement protections

For many unions, steady, paid bereavement leave is a necessary component of worker protections. Because unionized workers can influence their own labor conditions more than non-unionized workers can, unionized jobs are likelier to offer benefits like paid bereavement leave, sick leave and maternity leave.

UE argues that paid bereavement leave should be universally provided, rather than a matter of corporate discretion. "We believe that [bereavement leave] is a basic sign of respect for workers and their families," General President Peter Knowlton tells In These Times. He adds that it "should be guaranteed by law to all workers and all types of families."

According to UE Local 1107 vice president Joni Anderson, the union took a number of actions in solidarity with Christensen, a member of that chapter, amid the company's defiant posturing. Christensen's coworkers and fellow UE members circulated a petition calling for her disciplinary points to be revoked and her personal leave to be rendered. They posted signs that said "Stand With Cindy," and wore t-shirts proclaiming "We Are Not Family"—a direct reference, Anderson says, to the company's tendency to profess otherwise. Eventually, Anderson says, the union discovered that the company had quietly withdrawn Christensen's disciplinary points.

In response to the situation with Christensen, a Freudenberg-NOK spokesperson tells In These Times that it offers three days of paid bereavement to all employees at its Necedah plant. "The former employee — who was employed by Freudenberg-NOK at the time of her loss — was given three days of paid bereavement leave. The company further agreed to provide the employee with additional time off through the use of personal days, vacation days and FMLA-sponsored leave, per its contractual agreement. We do not discuss the individual decisions made in these situations."

Anderson adds that UE Local 1107 has sought to expand paid bereavement leave policies to account for extended family members such as aunts and uncles. Freudenberg-NOK has refused to concede, she says, permitting paid leave only for the loss of family members already designated in the contract. Anderson notes that the next round of negotiations is scheduled for November, during which she expects to bargain for personal leave.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) have waged similar battles. According to Andrea Zinder, UFCW Local 324 secretary-treasurer and president-elect of the UFCW Western States Council, paid bereavement leave between three and five days has been included in her local's grocery workers' contracts since at least 1984. Zinder tells In These Times that the local had just closed negotiations with Vons, Albertsons and Ralphs. Previously, employees were granted what was termed "funeral leave" on the condition that they produce proof of attendance of the service, such as a funeral card or program.

The policy soon proved inherently exclusionary and punitive. "A lot of times, there aren't funerals," Zinder says. "There are other ways of celebrating [someone's life]. When there wasn't an actual funeral, we sometimes ran into problems getting pay. We just changed the reference of 'funeral leave' to 'bereavement leave' in our retail food contract."

"You get a hardcore employer, and you get a problem," she adds. "When there's no funeral, what do you do?" (Vons, Albertsons, and Ralphs have not responded to In These Times' request for comment.)

The UFCW has also bargained for increased flexibility regarding timeframe of leave. Zinder says that within recent years, the union had modified certain contracts to allow for leave to be taken any time within a 14-day period.

Unions such as the UE and UFCW offer a formidable infrastructure through which to recognize and establish bereavement leave as a worker's right. Still, amid the threat of corporate adversaries and a long history of policymaking in their favor, the struggle to secure bereavement leave continues.

"I think that if we truly care about workers, which I'm not sure that we do as a society, but if we want to truly care about workers, bereavement leave is essential," says Millard. "We have trauma, trauma affects people, people are workers, and yet we're not doing what we need to do to get them where they need to be."

Baker adds, "While educating employers and lawmakers about grief is the obvious way to bring about widespread bereavement policy reform, it will take more than mental health advocacy for this idea to catch on. We need to be able to recognize exploitative expectations of workers."

By Julianne Tveten

Julianne Tveten’s work has appeared in In These Times, The Nation, The New Republic, Pacifica Radio and elsewhere.

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