When It Comes to Bereavement Leave, the U.S. Is Unspeakably Cruel

Julianne Tveten September 23, 2019

(GNT STUDIO/shutterstock.com)

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 UFCW Local 324 pres­i­dent Andrea Zin­der, 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.”

Julianne Tveten writes about tech­nol­o­gy, labor, and cul­ture, among oth­er top­ics. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Cap­i­tal & Main, KPFK Paci­fi­ca Radio, and elsewhere.
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