The American Workplace Isn’t Prepared for This Much Grief

The pandemic has highlighted the fact that without a federal bereavement policy, many people are subject to the whims of state legislatures and individual companies.

The U.S. has some of the most stringent social norms of any country regarding grief.
The U.S. has some of the most stringent social norms of any country regarding grief. (Photograph by Rachel Cox)

The extent of our collective bereavement in the United States today is staggering. With more than 740,000 Americans dead from COVID-19, the country is grappling with an onslaught of grief. Some 72 percent of Americans say they know someone who has been hospitalized or died from COVID-19. And each of these deaths affects, on average, nine people, according to one study, suggesting a “bereavement burden” that could touch more than 6.6 million people. This new reality has brought into focus how ill-equipped the American workplace is to offer support systems for those who are mourning.

The U.S. has some of the most stringent social norms of any country regarding grief, according to Alan Wolfelt, the founder and director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition. Wolfelt calls this the “North American resolution wish,” or the idea that grief can be linear, quick, and efficient. After people have only a few days off, he told me over the phone, it’s time to go back to work, “buck up and carry on and keep your chin up.” And that’s if a company even offers bereavement leave, which for many employers is unpaid. As a result of the pandemic, some experts forecast that the incidence of prolonged-grief disorder—grief that is persistent, pervasive, and interferes with a person’s functioning—could rise dramatically. “For many people,” Wolfelt said, processing their loss has “only just begun in that first 12 months.” Yet without federal protection in the form of a standard, paid bereavement policy, grieving American workers are subject to the whims of state legislatures and individual companies.

The prioritization of work over grief is ensconced in federal employment law. The Fair Labor Standards Act, the foundation of U.S. labor policy, does not require employers to provide paid leave, including vacation time, time to convalesce, or time to plan or attend a funeral. That stands in contrast to countries such as France, Japan, and New Zealand, which all have laws (with varying conditions) that require employees be given between two and five days of paid time off after a familial death. In the U.S., just three states have passed their own policies, also with conditions, such as business size and length of employment. Oregon requires employers to provide 12 unpaid weeks of leave, two of which can be used for bereavement after the death of a family member (this will become a paid protection in 2023). Illinois offers two weeks of unpaid bereavement leave, but only after the death of a child. And Maryland recently extended its Flexible Leave Act to require that employers who offer paid leave allow it to be used for bereavement. Most states have no laws requiring employers to offer bereavement leave, though New York and New Jersey are weighing proposals on statewide bereavement policies.

New Jersey’s proposal is noteworthy because it acknowledges that loss isn’t confined to just familial relationships. It features a clause that would offer one paid day off for the death of someone with whom the employee shared a “close association,” accounting for a wider range of interpersonal connections. A provision such as this might have been helpful for someone like Julie Ann Staley, a 43-year-old woman from Indiana who lost her fiancé to COVID-19. Staley, who worked remotely at a mortgage company, told me she was unable to take paid leave after her fiancé’s death in September, as her employer’s policy included only the deaths of family members and domestic partners. She said she couldn’t afford to take their offer of unpaid leave, and when she didn’t meet her monthly loan-processing quota—which she attributed to the stress of working while grieving—Staley was fired. “The industry is pretty cutthroat, but I’m surprised they had nothing in place,” she said. “I felt unsupported.” (The company did not respond to multiple requests for comment).

Sabila Khan, a 42-year-old publishing professional from New Jersey, co-founded a COVID-19-loss support group on Facebook after her father died from the virus in April 2020. The group, which has more than 12,500 members, has helped users commiserate and find community. “A lot of people don’t understand that their grief is something that’s very unusual,” she told me over the phone. “Their friends and family and people who they otherwise would’ve turned to don’t understand why they’re not just getting over it.” In dozens of posts, group participants bemoan their bereavement benefits, sharing stories of having their time-off requests rejected by a manager and of juggling grief while showing up to work.

Access to paid-leave benefits has also grown more inequitable over the past decade—the result of an inconsistent patchwork of policies that the pandemic has laid bare. Among the lowest 10 percent of wage earners in the country, only about 19 percent say they can access paid funeral leave if needed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And though no one is exempt from the effects of grief—which can manifest physically and disrupt cardiovascular function, the gastrointestinal system, and concentration—low-income workers are more likely to have to work while weathering these symptoms.

President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan initially proposed a national comprehensive paid-leave program, including three days for bereavement, but this provision was cut. Although a specific amount of time may not be sufficient for all who grieve, a federal guarantee of paid bereavement would have been a small but necessary step, according to Sherry Leiwant, a co-founder and the president of A Better Balance, a nonprofit focused on caregiving rights for workers. “If you pass a law that says you’re entitled to time off to bury a loved one and … to grieve,” Leiwant told me over the phone, “there’s a recognition that that’s a legitimate thing that people have a right to do.” But as the number of people lost to COVID-19 continues to grow, many American workers, at least for now, will have to shoulder those burdens with no guarantee of relief.