Bereavement Leave: Advice for Canadian Employers

  • Sickness & Leave
Bereavement Leave: Advice for Canadian Employers
Olivia Cicchini

Olivia Cicchini, Employment Law Expert

(Last updated )

The death of a loved one is an extremely difficult situation for anyone. As an employer, you should provide a supportive environment to help employees manage their grief. Showing compassion to your staff during this challenging time in their life is not just the right thing to do, it’ll also strengthen your work culture.

As with any type of leave, with the ever-changing employment relations landscape, there is often confusion surrounding bereavement. Whether it’s knowing how much leave an employee is entitled to, or which steps to take to support employees in the workplace through this hard time, the following best practices will allow you to appropriately handle bereavement in the workplace.

What is bereavement leave?

Bereavement leave allows employees who have lost a family member to take unpaid leave from work.

Each province slightly differs in their bereavement leave regulations. It is important to check the employment standards legislation in the province you operate in or where your employee resides.

Is bereavement leave paid in Canada?

In Ontario, all employees are entitled to unpaid bereavement leave if they are employed for at least two weeks with the business. An employer can also provide bereavement leave to employees who have less than 14 days of service, but it is not required under the ESA.

In Alberta, employees qualify for bereavement leave if they have been employed at least 90 days with the same employer. British Columbia's Employment Standards Act, too, provides unpaid bereavement leave to all employees.

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How many bereavement days are employees entitled to?

Each province slightly differs in their bereavement leave regulations. It is important to check the employment standards legislation in the province you operate in or where your employee resides.

In Ontario, employees are entitled to two unpaid days of bereavement leave per calendar year, which cannot be carried over to another calendar year. In Alberta and BC, employees are entitled to 3 days of unpaid bereavement leave per calendar year.

Unfortunately, if more than one family member dies in a single year, employees are not entitled to additional days of leave. That said, employers are welcome to offer additional leave as they see fit.

Which family members are covered by bereavement leave?

A main area of confusion regarding bereavement leave is which family members it applies to. In Ontario, the ESA states that bereavement leave can be taken after the death of an immediate or extended family member. This includes:

  • A spouse;
  • A parent, including a foster parent;
  • A child, including a foster child;
  • A grandparent or grandchild;
  • A son- or daughter-in-law;
  • A sibling; or
  • A relative who is dependent on the employee.

If an employee is not experiencing bereavement due to the death of any of the above family members, they are not entitled under the Employment Standards Act to bereavement leave. Bereavement leave is not available due the death of an aunt, nephew, or niece.

In BC, bereavement leave can be availed in case of the demise of a member of the employee's “immediate family”.

Under BC's ESA, an employee's “immediate family” means:

  • A spouse
  • A child
  • A parent or guardian
  • A sibling
  • A grandchild or grandparent
  • Any person living with an employee as a family member, including common-law spouses, step-parents, and step-children, and same sex partners and their children.

In Alberta, bereavement leave can be availed after the death of an immediate or extended family member. This includes the employee's:

  • Spouse, adult interdependent partner or common-law partner
  • Children (and their partner/spouse)
  • Current or former foster children (and their partner/spouse)
  • Current or former wards
  • Parents, step-parents and/or current or former guardians (and their partner/spouse)
  • Current or former foster parents
  • Siblings, half-siblings, step-siblings (and their partner/spouse)
  • Grandchildren, step-grandchildren (and their partner/spouse)
  • Grandparents, step-grandparents
  • Aunts, uncles, step-aunts, step-uncles (and their partner/spouse)
  • Nieces, nephews (and their partner/spouse)
  • A person the employee isn’t related to but considers to be like a close relative

Family members of employee’s spouse, common-law or adult interdependent partner:

  • Children (and their partner/spouse)
  • Current or former wards
  • Parents, step-parents, foster parents
  • Sibling, half-sibling, step-sibling
  • Grandparents
  • Grandchildren
  • Aunts, uncles
  • Nieces, nephews

How much notice does an employee have to provide?

Employees are required to give their employer reasonable notice before taking bereavement leave or as soon as is reasonably possible after beginning the leave. The notice does not need to be in writing.

Do employees need to provide proof?

Under Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, employers have the right to require an employee to “provide evidence reasonable in the circumstances” that they are entitled to bereavement leave.

Some examples of this type of evidence include a death certificate, an obituary, a notification from a funeral home, or an appointment with an estate lawyer.

Under BC's Employment Standards Act, employers are allowed to ask for proof of death and the nature of the relationship in the event of a dispute. But in Alberta, a medical note or any other proof of entitlement is not required.

How much bereavement leave are federal employees entitled to?

Federal employees are covered under the Canada Labour Code. Under this legislation, an employee is entitled to a paid leave of absence of up to 10 days in the event of a death of a family member as well as paid bereavement leave. An employee who has worked for three consecutive months is entitled to be paid for the first three days of their ten-day bereavement leave.

How to support employees experiencing bereavement

Everyone grieves differently. Some may take weeks and months to heal, and others may need years to be able to adjust to life without their beloved family member.

While there isn’t a statutory duty for employers to provide support to employees, the emergence of employee assistance programs has seen businesses invest in the well-being of their workforce. An employee assistance program gives employees access to trained counsellors, free of charge, to provide reassurance, guidance, and help through a difficult time.

Have a strong bereavement leave policy

Having a policy in place and making employees aware of the rules surrounding bereavement leave is an important way to avoid making an employee’s situation worse than it already is when a family member passes away. A bereavement leave policy is always advisable, as it will avoid confusion by ensuring that employees are aware of their entitlement to time off as well as notice requirements.

While you must provide the minimum unpaid leave set in your province’s employment standards legislation (three days in Alberta and British Columbia; two in Ontario), it may not suffice. Two or three days may just be enough to take care of funeral arrangements and other such matters. You may want to consider providing paid bereavement leave to your staff.

Those who lose loved ones can experience traumatic stress symptoms, including feelings such as anger, guilt, sadness, and a numbness that only compounds their grief. If your worker is still in shock and needs more time off, you may also want to consider unpaid bereavement leave. Alternatively, you could allow them to combine their vacation leave with paid bereavement leave.

Be mindful of your employee’s workload

While some people deal with grief by distracting themselves with work, others may find it hard to just get through the day. Your employee may experience social withdrawal, anxiety, lower productivity, mood swings or difficulty concentrating at work.

You can ease their transition into a normal work routine by reducing their workload, allowing them to work from home or work flexible hours.

Regularly check in with your employee

A workplace where an employee’s well-being is valued is a workplace that retains its staff. You may have spoken to your employee to express your condolences on hearing of their loss. It is also important to regularly check in with them over the next few weeks. It can be a conversation as simple and brief as enquiring after their well-being and letting them know that you’re there to support them.

Regular check-ins will also help you spot signs of grief getting out of control, such as depression, aggression, or substance abuse. If that is the case, you should get your employee the help they need.

Provide grief counselling through EAP

A grief counsellor will help your employee learn coping strategies to handle their loss better. Make sure your bereaved employee knows of the grief counselling services available through your EAP program.

If your company does not offer an EAP, you should consider getting one. Alternatively, you could connect your employee to a grief counsellor through a community agency such as a hospice.

It may also be useful to conduct workshops on supporting grieving colleagues in the workplace through your EAP provider. Not only will such classes help you and your staff know what to say (or not) to a bereaved co-worker, but also train you to pick signs when someone is managing their grief poorly.

Do you need help creating an effective bereavement leave policy?

As with many types of leave in the workplace, with the ever-changing employment relations landscape, it is important that your policies reflect the current legislation. Our HR experts can assist you with company policies, and with any other HR, health & safety or employment matters that arise. To learn more about how our services can benefit your business, call an expert today at 1 (833) 247-3652.

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