Congress Poised to Add a New Reason for FMLA Leave in 2017

While adding a new employment entitlement would seem unlikely given the current political makeup of the federal government, both the United States House of Representatives and the Senate appear ready to do just that with the Parental Bereavement Act of 2017. This Act would add “the death of a son or daughter” as a qualifying reason for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

The Parental Bereavement Act of 2017 was introduced in the House on March 16, 2017, and a companion bill was introduced in the Senate on March 6, 2017. While the Senate version currently enjoys support on only one side of the aisle, the House bill has bipartisan support making it a real possibility.

Readers will recall that to be covered under the FMLA, a private employer must employ 50 or more employees in a 75 mile radius. Additionally, an employee must have worked for the employer for at least 12 months and have worked at least 1,250 hours during the 12 months prior to leave to be eligible for it. Under current law, an eligible employee who works for a covered employer is entitled to up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave for the birth or adoption of a son or daughter, to care for an immediate family member with a serious health condition, or for the employee’s own serious health condition.

The decision to offer bereavement leave or funeral leave is largely a matter of company discretion in the United States. Although there is no state requirement in Wisconsin, it may be in other jurisdictions. For example, Oregon’s Family Leave Act includes bereavement of a family member as a qualifying reason for leave. Illinois also grants qualifying employees up to two weeks of leave for the death of a child under its Child Bereavement Leave Act. The introduction of the Parental Bereavement Act of 2017 also follows the announcement by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg that the company would begin to offer employees leave of 20 days for the death of an immediate family member and 10 days for the death of an extended family member.

Employers in jurisdictions that do not require bereavement leave for the death of a family member should still be vigilant with other potential, related compliance needs. For example, an employee’s depression following or concurrent with a death in the family may be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act and require a limited period of leave as an accommodation. Or, a family member may suffer a similar mental health condition that qualifies as a serious health condition requiring leave under the FMLA. Employers should consider whether these alternative protections could apply before outright denying a request for bereavement leave.