Bereavement Leave: Advice for Canadian Employers

The death of a loved one is painful and challenging. It can happen anytime, and your staff will require time away from work when they lose a family member.

As much as you need your entire staff to maintain business operations, your grieving employees won't be productive if forced to stay at work while mourning.

In addition to their inability to work, denying an employee time off in times of tragedy breeds a toxic work environment, lowers morale and leads to high turnover.

In addition to these consequences, failure to give your employees time off following a death could be a breach of contract. Your employee could take you to an Employment Standards Branch or employment complaint proceeding, leading to costly penalties.

In this guide, we’ll explain what every employer should know about bereavement leave, your employee’s bereavement entitlements, and the different rules enforcing such leaves across Canada.

What is bereavement leave?

Bereavement leave is the period of time off work that is granted after an employee's loved one or family member's death.

Every employee is entitled to unpaid bereavement leave in Canada. Even though some Canadian jurisdictions require employers to give some paid time off (e.g., Newfoundland and Labrador and the Federal Jurisdiction), you may choose to make it a paid leave in your company.

Offering your employees paid bereavement leave can help reduce some of their distress and take away their worry about losing income as they mourn.

Having paid time off can also help your bereaved employee get through the difficult time of grieving, attend a funeral or memorial service, make funeral arrangements, and take care of their responsibilities and other formalities.

Although bereavement leave is job-protected and every employee has the right to use it, it's a legal requirement and best practice to include your business's policy surrounding bereavement in your employee's employment contract or handbook.

What should I include in my bereavement leave policy?

It is best practice for employers to have a bereavement leave policy. It's also a great way to show employees you care about their wellbeing and that you're willing to provide support when they go through hard times.

Having a written bereavement leave policy in your employee handbook or as a stand-alone document helps your employees understand their entitlements, know what to do if they need more time off, and any other benefits your business provides.

Here are a few things you should include in your bereavement leave policy:

Amount of time your employees are entitled to

Let employees know exactly how many days off they get. Bereavement leave entitlements vary by province, so checking local legislation is important.

Another thing to bear in mind is that when your company policies make allowances for more days off than local legislation provides, employees are to follow the terms of their contract. But, where your company policies provide fewer days than the provincial requirement, employees are entitled to take the number of days mandated by the province.

So, for example, if your company only gives employees two days of bereavement leave, but the provincial requirement is five days of bereavement leave, employees are entitled to 5 days off.

Who qualifies as a family member

Clearly state who qualifies as a family member in this section. Some companies allow employees to take bereavement leave when a close friend, pet, or extended family member's death occurs. But, some other companies only give bereavement leave when a direct relative like the employee's spouse, parents, children or sibling's death occurs.

Make sure that what your policy considers to be a family member is compliant with provincial minimum employment requirements. Checking how provincial employment standards legislation define “family member” will tell you whom your policy should include

Whether bereavement leave is a paid leave

As mentioned earlier, employment standards legislation in all Canadian jurisdictions but Nunavut provides employees with bereavement leave.

Outline in your company policy whether or not you offer paid bereavement leave beyond minimum standards requirements.

Notice requirements

As with all leaves and time off work requests, employees will have to formally inform you when they need to take a bereavement leave of absence.

Your company policy should clearly state the notice requirements for taking bereavement leave. It's best practice to request reasonable notice, but as death is unexpected, allowing employees to take the day off or leave work as long as they inform you as soon as possible is just the right thing to do.

You should also state in your policy if oral notice is enough and whether or not they'll need to provide written notice later.

Whether proof of entitlement and documentation is required

Your bereavement leave policy should say whether you'll need proof like a death certificate or other documents like a medical certificate to serve as evidence that they qualify for bereavement leave. Other documents that may serve as proof include an obituary, or a funeral program.

It's unlikely that your employee would lie about a family member's death, so you may be hesitant to ask for proof, but you may need documentation for record-keeping or to verify the nature of their relationship with the deceased.

Reasons bereavement leave may be taken

Bereavement leave can be taken immediately after a family member dies or later to make funeral arrangements, conduct religious ceremonies or attend to estate matters. Your employee is entitled to take bereavement leave after continuous employment with the same employee each calendar year if they lose a family member. Determining who counts as a family member can be challenging as it varies by province.

Who is considered an immediate family member?

Ontario

In Ontario, employees can only take bereavement leave when a member of their immediate family dies. This includes:

  • The employee's spouse, including unmarried couples
  • The employee's parents, including foster parent or step-parents
  • The employee's child, including foster children and stepchildren
  • The employee's sibling or half-sibling
  • The employee's child's spouse
  • Dependent relatives who are in the employee's care

Employees in Ontario cannot take bereavement leave for the death of aunts, step-aunts, uncles, nieces or nephews.

Alberta

In Alberta, employees can take bereavement leave if an immediate or extended family member passes on. This includes:

  • The employee's child or their child's partner
  • The employee's parents, current or former guardians, or step-parents
  • The employee's siblings, half-siblings, step-siblings and their spouses
  • The employee's grandparents or step-grandparents
  • The employee's step-aunts, aunts, uncles and step-uncles, including their spouses
  • The employee's nieces and nephews or their spouses
  • People not blood-related but who the employee is as close to as a relative

British Colombia

In British Colombia, an employee can take bereavement leave when any of the following immediate family members dies:

  • The employee's child, stepchild or grandchild
  • The employee's adult interdependent partner
  • The employee's parent, step-parent, guardian or grandparent
  • The employee's spouse or common-law partner
  • The employees' common-law partner's children
  • Any person who lives with the employee as a family member

Federally regulated employees

Under the Canada Labour Code, federal law mandates that workers are entitled to up to 10 days of paid leave absence when any of their family members dies.

Employees who have worked for at least three consecutive months in the federal sector are paid for the first three days of their bereavement leave.

Is bereavement leave paid?

As previously mentioned by law, you don't have to pay your employees when they take time off work to grieve. For example, under the Employment Standards Act (ESA), there’s no requirement to pay staff for bereavement leave in Ontario.

But remember that the rules may vary in some provinces, and it's best practice to offer paid leave where possible.

How many days of bereavement leave do your staff receive?

Bereavement leave is a job-protected leave your employees have the right to take. The minimum leave of absence for bereavement differs in each province and ranges from two to seven days.

Part-time and full-time employees are also entitled to the same number of days of bereavement leave.

Length of bereavement leave by province and territory

  • British Columbia and Alberta: Employees are entitled to three days of job-protected, unpaid leave.
  • Ontario and Quebec: According to national legislation, employees are entitled to two days of unpaid job-protected leave.
  • Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Manitoba: Employees in these provinces are entitled to up to five days of job-protected unpaid bereavement leave.
  • Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland: Employees are entitled to one day of paid leave and two days of unpaid bereavement leave.
  • Federal bereavement leave is 10 days.

Interaction with other leaves

Your employee may qualify for multiple types of personal leave at the same time. Leaves like sick leave, domestic or sexual violence, crime-related child death, or disappearance leave exist for different reasons.

An employee can be entitled to multiple leaves for the same event. For example, an employee can be entitled to bereavement leave and crime-related child death leave at the same time.

Another example is an employee away on parental leave who loses a family member. The employee would still be entitled to bereavement leave.

In such situations, their absence at the time can only count against one leave, and they can take time and use the other leave they qualify for in the same calendar year.

Can you terminate an employee on bereavement leave?

It's against the law to terminate an employee when they are away on bereavement leave or any other job-protected leave. You also can't terminate an employee because they requested to take bereavement leave.

Employees also have the right to return to the same employer, the same job, normal hours of work and pay when they return to work at the end of their bereavement leave.

Terminating an employee who requests a job-protected leave can be considered discrimination and unjust dismissal. The employee can file a claim against you, which can result in costly fines and other serious repercussions for the company.

Tips for supporting employees when they lose a family member

As an employer, you may not be required by law to offer bereaved employees support, but doing so shows you're attentive to your employees' needs. It also benefits your company in the long run.

Your employee may not show any outward signs of grief, and many people try to keep themselves together and carry on with their tasks after losing someone close to them, so extending support to all employees going through such a challenging time can do wonders for your workplace culture.

Check-in with the employee regularly

Conduct periodic check-ins with the employee who has lost a family member. Speak to the employee and express your condolences, offer help where possible, and let them know support is always available.

You can also ask their manager or supervisor to keep an eye on them in the weeks after to check for signs of grief that indicate they may need more time off or further support from a professional.

Be mindful of your employee's workload

Be patient and accommodating when your employee returns to work after being away. They may want to distract themselves with work and overwork or be too distressed to work and struggle to get through the day.

They may have anxiety, withdraw from interacting with their coworkers, have mood swings or exhibit other symptoms that interfere with their work.

You can reduce the pressure of work and help them transition back onto their routine by lightening their workload or offering work-from-home and flexible work options where possible.

Communicate

Communication is essential to help your employee cope with their loss. Show empathy and make sure you handle the situation delicately. Losing a loved one is deeply personal, so show care while letting your employee process their emotions in their own way.

Respect your employee's privacy, but inform their team, especially if the bereaved employee's absence will affect their work. Remind their coworkers to be considerate during and after their coworker's absence.

Provide professional resources

Where possible, give employees access to professional resources like grief counselling and an employee assistance program or other benefits to help them process their loss.

They may not know about these resources or be too distracted to remember professional support is available, so putting together information that'll help them can be a welcome relief.

Allow them to grieve

Give your employees room to grieve even when it's challenging for you and their coworkers. Your employees may be irritable, distracted, or slow to respond and exhibit other emotional responses that can make them hard to work with.

Forcing employees to ignore their feelings or mask their pain can harm their mental and physical health. Accept they may be hard to work with for some time, and let them know they won't be punished for being emotional.

Get help handling bereavement leave with BrightHR

Death is an inevitable part of life, and as an employer, it's crucial always to be prepared to support your employees when they need it.

You may be unable to decrease your employee's feelings of pain and loss when they lose an immediate family member, but you can support them as they recover.

Knowing the right steps to support your employees during such times can help avoid uncertainty and help them get back to their routines as soon as possible.

One of the best ways to do this is to have a strong bereavement policy.

Our library of templates, checklists and policies BrightBase is packed with documents created by Canadian employment relations specialists. These policies are downloadable and easily customized to suit your business needs.

BrightHR also has a range of tools to simplify tracking staff absences and leave entitlements. Our sick leave and lateness tools allow your employees to request time off in a few taps, allowing you to manage leave quickly and efficiently.

Interested in hearing more about how we can help you manage bereavement leave?

Contact us on 1 888 220 4924 or book a demo today.

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