As we continue to grapple with the lasting effects of the pandemic, employers continue to evaluate how to best support employee needs. While initially, time off strategies focused on maintaining business operations and insulating those individuals with immediate COVID-19-related needs, the ongoing effects of the pandemic have given rise to both mental health concerns and an underlyingly more somber reason for leave. The overall increase in leave volume (when compared to recent years) is apparent and largely attributable to COVID-19. Programs were (and continue to be) established and modified to ensure employees are allowed time off for affiliated reasons.
THE COST OF COVID-19
The staggering death toll due to COVID-19 has impacted millions of people worldwide, including their approach to grieving and honoring loved ones’ lives.1 In the U.S. alone, over 624,000 American deaths are attributable to the virus. The significance of this is amplified when factoring in the number of people who were left grieving the loss of their loved ones.2 In a July 2020 study, Princeton University researchers estimated there were 1.8 million Americans who experienced the loss of a close relative due to COVID-19.3
Across nearly every industry and sector, substantial populations of employees shifted to remote work. For many, this was a new and unfamiliar experience which blurred the boundaries between work and home. As a result, many people, fearing job security, were hesitant to take time off from work.4
Equipped with this information, employers should be asking:
- How can employees feel supported during distressing life events?
- What strategies exist to encourage employees to take time off to rest and recharge?
- Is it time to rethink Paid Time Off (PTO)?
With effective programs and strategies to encourage taking time off, employees can not only be more confident about doing so but be happier and more productive.5
Employers were evaluating their approach to bereavement leave approach well before the pandemic, with several planning or implementing expanded and more generous bereavement policies. These conversations are at the forefront once again, now that the prominent death toll from the pandemic has exposed major gaps in bereavement leave programs and policies.
Unlike many other leave programs, bereavement is not yet mandated by states, except for Oregon and Illinois. Oregon’s Family Leave Act (OFLA) requires that eligible employees be allowed to take leave for bonding, a serious health condition, pregnancy disability, a sick child, and the death of a family member.6 Illinois’ bereavement law is much narrower than the Oregon law, covering only child bereavement leave (Child Bereavement Leave Act).7 With the proposed American Families Plan earlier in 2021, we also saw the potential for bereavement leave at the federal level. The proposal would require employers to provide three (3) paid days off not only for family and employee medical care reasons, but also for mourning the loss of a family member.8 The proposal will likely face challenges in the legislature, and it is unclear whether all aspects of the plan will pass. While states and the federal government may eventually introduce bereavement leave mandates, it is more likely that employers’ dedication to meeting employee needs will be the primary driver for changes to bereavement programs in the foreseeable future.
In addition to general bereavement leave, conversations around the treatment of miscarriage have become more frequent, potentially attributable to a new law in New Zealand that requires employers to provide a minimum of three (3) days of leave per bereavement reason. Specifically, the law was praised for purposefully including miscarriage and stillbirth as reasons for leave.9 In the U.S., the conversation gained traction when Elizabeth O’Donnell was denied a portion of her pre-approved paid leave after experiencing a stillborn delivery.10 While not yet common in employer bereavement policies, there is certainly consideration for how to better address the needs of employees who experience this type of loss.
Sabbatical programs are one of the many strategies some employers have implemented to foster a culture of employee well-being, reward tenure, and curb burnout. Notwithstanding these benefits, sabbatical programs also offer a unique opportunity for employees to take an extended leave of absence that is not tied to a medical or family leave. A sabbatical differs from vacation and paid time off (PTO) programs because it is not an accrued bank of time. Therefore, it is not subject to carryover, payout, and other labor- and wage-related requirements (as applicable in certain states). Sabbaticals are also often reserved for employees who have met a specific tenure with the company and may serve as a reward to recognize employees’ long-term commitment. In addition, sabbaticals typically provide employees with multiple weeks of time off, whereas vacation and PTO policies may limit time off to one (1) to two (2) weeks of utilization at a time.
In Spring 2021, Pacific Resources conducted market research to gain broader insights into the design of sabbatical leaves among employers who do offer this type of program.
- Eligibility: Many employers in the study make the sabbatical available based on full-time or part-time status, as opposed to limiting the program to a specific job title or position. On average, employers require a minimum tenure of seven (7) years before allowing sabbatical leave.
- Paid vs. Unpaid: Almost all provide a paid sabbatical program.
- Entitlement: On average, the minimum length of sabbatical leave provided is five (5) weeks; the maximum length is seven (7) weeks.
In this research, employer industries included software/technology, retail, hospitality, professional services, restaurants, and manufacturing. Meanwhile, employer sizes ranged from 1,000 to 330,000 employees. The data is clear: sabbatical programs are not just for academia and can work for employers of all sizes.
- Grieving and Bereavement in the Time of Coronavirus. Grieving and Bereavement in the Time of Coronavirus | Business Group on Health. (n.d.). https://www.businessgrouphealth.org/resources/grieving-and-bereavement-in-the-time-of-coronavirus.
- Lynch, K. (2021, May 24). Council Post: How the Pandemic Has Exposed the Gap in Bereavement Support. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbeshumanresourcescouncil/2021/05/24/how-the-pandemic-has-exposed-the-gap-in-bereavement-support/?sh=574133e61083.
- Verdery, A. M., Smith-Greenaway, E., Margolis, R., & Daw, J. (2020, July 28). Tracking the reach of COVID-19 KIN loss with a bereavement multiplier applied to the United States. PNAS. https://www.pnas.org/content/117/30/17695.
- Aspan, M. (2020, September 27). 5 better ways to help your employees mourn at the office. Fortune. https://fortune.com/2020/09/27/coronavirus-mourning-grief-at-work-covid-19/.
- Frye, L. (2019, August 16). More people are taking time off, and that's good for business. SHRM. https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/employee-relations/pages/workers-taking-more-vacation-.aspx.
- Oregon Secretary of State. Oregon Secretary of State Administrative Rules. (n.d.). https://secure.sos.state.or.us/oard/displayChapterRules.action?selectedChapter=24.
- Illinois General Assembly. 820 ILCS 154/ Child Bereavement Leave Act. (n.d.). https://www.ilga.gov/legislation/ilcs/ilcs3.asp?ActID=3724&ChapterID=68.
- The United States Government. (2021, May 6). Fact Sheet: The American Families Plan. The White House. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/04/28/fact-sheet-the-american-families-plan/.
- Bereavement leave. Employment New Zealand. (n.d.). https://www.employment.govt.nz/leave-and-holidays/bereavement-leave/.
- Delmore, E. (2021, March 17). Denied paid leave after a stillbirth at 31 weeks, Elizabeth O'Donnell is Turning grief and anger into action. NBCNews.com. https://www.nbcnews.com/know-your-value/feature/denied-paid-leave-after-stillbirth-31-weeks-elizabeth-o-donnell-ncna1261210.