NY Could Join Tiny List of States Mandating Bereavement Leave

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By Genevieve Douglas

New York could become the third state in the country to require employers to provide bereavement leave to workers who lose a family member—and only the second to mandate that such leave be paid.

A bill passed by the Legislature June 19 would expand the state’s existing paid family leave law to cover workers who’ve experienced the death of a child, spouse, domestic partner, parent, grandparent, or grandchild. The family leave law requires employers to provide workers with 12 weeks of paid leave annually in a variety of circumstances.

If signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), the bill would go into effect Jan. 1, 2020. The policy would make New York the most generous state when it comes to bereavement leave.

Oregon’s paid sick leave law requires employers with at least 10 workers to provide 40 hours of paid sick leave, which eligible employees can use in the case of an immediate family member’s death. In Illinois, employers covered under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act must allow workers to use 10 days of unpaid leave for the loss of a child.

“Bereavement leave is certainly unique,” said Lisa M. Marrello, office managing principal in the Albany, N.Y., office of management-side law firm Jackson Lewis P.C.

“The push is driven by the increased recognition that some deaths in the family are particularly devastating to employees. A few days off for a funeral isn’t enough,” Marrello told Bloomberg Law.

Meanwhile, Cuomo has until Dec. 31 to sign it. Cuomo usually signs legislation with fiscal components for both businesses and the state toward the end of the year, but he’s up for re-election this year, which could influence the timing, Kevin M. Bronner Jr., government relations director for Jackson Lewis in Albany, told Bloomberg Law July 16.

Companies Ahead of Law?

In many workplaces, employees can use personal time off to grieve, or the employer provides separate leave in these instances. Eighty-eight percent of companies surveyed this year by the Society for Human Resource Management offer bereavement leave, up from 79 percent in 2017.

In many instances, however, it’s only a few days, Ellen Bravo, co-director of Family Values @ Work, told Bloomberg Law July 17.

“Sheryl Sandberg really brought a lot of light to the scarcity of paid bereavement leave” that gives enough time off for employees to truly recover, Bravo said, referring to Facebook’s COO. Sandberg’s husband Dave Goldberg died of heart failure in May 2015.

In the wake of that loss, Facebook expanded its leave benefits to include 20 days off for the death of an immediate family member, and 10 days of paid leave in the case of extended family. Shortly thereafter, Mastercard Inc. announced it would expand its bereavement leave policy to 20 days for the loss of a spouse, domestic partner, or child.

Navigating Loss

Why is bereavement time-off so rarely covered in paid leave legislation? Leave for the loss of a family member comes with a lot of flexibility in how and when it is used and “can be pretty expansive,” Bronner said. “Unfortunately, many employees experience a death,” he said.

Bronner noted that bereavement leave often is taken with little notice, and with so few jurisdictions requiring paid bereavement leave, “the anticipated costs are unknown,” he said.

In some instances, it could be that bereavement leave was not part of the discussion of leave, Bravo said. “Policymakers in the past just didn’t pay attention to bereavement leave. What’s changed is that there’s a powerful movement in support of paid leave, and it’s winning and it’s growing,” she said. “As the stories emerge, people have been making the issue of bereavement visible in a way that it wasn’t talked about before.”

The cost can be prohibitive as well. As New York legislators considered the bereavement leave bill, business groups questioned the feasibility of employers carrying out the expanded leave.

“The full costs of the current Paid Family Leave program are unknown, but anecdotally appear to be well beyond what lawmakers and state regulators originally estimated,” Heather C. Briccetti, president and chief executive office of the Business Council of New York State Inc., said in a statement.

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