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 beenÂ a unionized production worker at a Freudenberg-NOK Sealing Technologies plant in Necedah, Wisconsin, for over 30 years. Before the diagnosis, she knew sheâd have to be available during her husbandâs hospital stay, and she arranged to use paid time off sheâd accumulated. Shortly after the diagnosis, she began to consider the arrangements sheâd have to make with her employer while her husband received treatment.
Christensen says she filed a request for unpaid leave through theÂ Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), thinking sheâd 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 âunpaid, job-protectedâ leave in a 12-month period for family-related caretaking matters for eligible employees. In Wisconsin,Â employees qualifyÂ if theyâve 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.
âIn that weekâs time, my husband got worse and worse,â the now-retired Christensen tellsÂ In These Times. âHe developed sepsis, and his organs shut down.â On March 26, 2018 he died.Â 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 husbandâs death, Christensen says she was given three daysâ 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 werenât covered by paid leave; each of these days resulted in disciplinary âpoints.â Reaching a certain number of points, she explains, would be grounds for firing. Christensen saysÂ she returned to work the following Wednesday, after seven days off.
âI was very close to losing my job,â she tellsÂ In These Times. âWhen things like this happen, you would like to take some time off. Thereâs so much stuff that you have to do. I wouldâve 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,â 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 Christensenâs surprise, she recounts, the company denied her request, explaining that a broken water heater would warrant such leave, but her husbandâs sudden illness and death wouldnât.
âMy husband was gone within a weekâs time, and that was just a shock in itself. We didnât know he had cancer, then we found out, and a week later, heâs gone. That was a lot,â Christensen says. âI thought they [Freudenberg-NOK] were going to be more kind, but they werenât. It was a battle…They were just nasty about it.â
No right to bereavement leave
Christensenâs ordeal offers a glimpse into the state of bereavement leave for workers in the United States.
Bereavement leave isnât federally mandated for any workers; thus, itâs largely a matter of whether employers choose to provide it. According to the Department of Labor, theÂ Fair Labor Standards Act, which sets standards for minimum wage, overtime pay, record keeping and youth employment, âdoes not require payment for time not worked, including attending a funeral.â Laws vary by state:Â OregonÂ 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,Â legally requireÂ 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 spansÂ three to five daysÂ for full-time employees following the loss of an immediate family member, andÂ one dayÂ following the loss of an extended family member or close friend, when itâs offered.
As of 2012, onlyÂ 60%Â 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%Â received paid leave, compared with 71%Â of full-time employees. (More recent statistics arenât 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 andÂ Uber drivers; in most cases, this remains a matter of the employerâs jurisdiction.
In some majorÂ capitalist countries other than the U.S., bereavement leave is somewhat more substantial. In Canada, bereavement leave of at least three days isÂ guaranteed for employeesÂ under the Canada Labour Code, with pay contingent on duration of employment. The U.K.Â classifiesÂ leave for an emergency involving a dependent as a right, but doesnât require that it be paid, and doesnât guarantee bereavement leave specifically. FranceÂ mandatesÂ three daysâ 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,Â 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 companyâs COO, Sheryl Sandberg, was suddenlyn widowed.
MasterCardÂ and SurveyMonkeyÂ followed suit with comparable policies, citing Facebookâs precedent.
At the time of these announcements, corporateÂ media Â outletsÂ 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 piecemealâand why the most generous versions of them should hinge upon the impulses of immensely wealthyÂ 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 isnât federally mandated: This gives them more control over how much they invest in their workers, and further legal license to ignore their workersâ mental and physical health requirements. Thus, because federal labor law doesnât guarantee protections for bereft workers, those workersâ 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 saysÂ 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.
âI spent the whole [vacation] week planning a memorial, dealing with family, figuring out logistics,â she tellsÂ In These Times. âI had to ask permission to take one extra day at the end of the week. I came back, and I was understandably a mess.â Millard wrote about her experience in 2018 for the now-defunct publicationÂ The Establishment.
Upon her return, Millard saysÂ 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 âperformance improvement planâ in order to more closely monitor her work. Millard, whoâd worked there for three years, continued to seek leave over the course of two or three months, by her estimate.
âThey wouldnât [provide] that, and then I was fired,â she says. âI was fired for distraction[-related] things, like, âTook too long on a project.ââ
An employerâs 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. â[Bereavement leave] is crucial. Grief is not only emotional; itâs mental, itâs physical, itâs spiritual in many ways. Youâre 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.â
Experiences such as Millardâs are symptomatic of a larger problem, according to therapist and mental-health educator Araya Baker. âI donât 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,â he says.
âWe romanticize the ability to repress pain and to forego help and rest,â Baker adds.Â âBut we cannot always simply deactivate the part of our brains that cause our bodies and minds to grieve, simply because weâre at work.â
Lopez and Baker state that the individual grief process varies significantly depending on the mournerâs relationship with the deceased, cause of deathÂ and other factors. Research shows that acute grief, which commonly results shortly after the death of a loved one, can result inÂ depression, trouble sleeping, feelings of anger and bitterness, anxiety, loss of appetite and general aches and painsâall of which can interfere with, and be exacerbated byâthe need to perform a job.
And while thereâs no quantifiable, universal grief period, research also shows that traumatic life events can require a recovery period of at least several weeks to months. AÂ 2017 studyÂ 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.
âThere should definitely be a conversation about how to accommodate someoneâs 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,â saysÂ 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 âis dismissive of folks, especially in the LGBTQÂ community, where a lot of folks have chosen familyâ because their families have rejected them, saysÂ Lopez.
She adds, âAÂ 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 itâs not an immediate family member, you [often] donât even get those three days. It completely dismisses the impact of grief for many people.â
These forms of discrimination also surface for workers who donât 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 reportedÂ 40%Â of people living in the U.S. canât cover a $400 emergency expense, and another reportedÂ 40%Â 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, workersâ mental health suffers. âFinancial stress can compound grief, and make the recovery itself traumatic,â saysÂ Baker.
âYouâre not going to have low-income folks have the ability to take off that much time, even if itâs given to them [as unpaid leave],â saysÂ Lopez. âThatâs just not a reality. Thatâs the sad part. Who gets to break down? Who gets to just check out?â
The union struggle for bereavement protections
For many unions, steady, paid bereavement leave is a necessary component of worker protections. Because unionized workersÂ can influenceÂ their own labor conditions more than non-unionized workers can, unionized jobs are likelier to offer benefits like paid bereavement leave,Â sick leaveÂ andÂ maternity leave.
UE argues that paid bereavement leave should be universally provided, rather than a matter of corporate discretion. âWe believe that [bereavement leave] is a basic sign of respect for workers and their families,â General President Peter Knowlton tellsÂ In These Times. He addsÂ that it âshould be guaranteed by law to all workers and all types of families.â
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 companyâs defiant posturing. Christensenâs 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 saidÂ âStand With Cindy,â and wore t-shirts proclaiming âWe AreÂ NotÂ Familyââa direct reference, Anderson says,Â to the companyâs tendency to profess otherwise. Eventually, Anderson says, the union discovered that the company had quietly withdrawn Christensenâs disciplinary points.
In response to the situation with Christensen, a Freudenberg-NOK spokesperson tellsÂ In These TimesÂ that it offers three days of paid bereavement to all employees at its Necedah plant. âThe former employee â who was employed by Freudenberg-NOK at the time of her loss â 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.â
Anderson addsÂ 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 notesÂ 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 Andrea Zinder, UFCW Local 324 secretary-treasurerÂ and president-elect of the UFCW Western States Council, paid bereavement leave between three and five days has been included in her localâs grocery workersâ contracts since at least 1984. Zinder tellsÂ In These TimesÂ that the local had just closed negotiations with Vons, AlbertsonsÂ and Ralphs. Previously, employees were granted what was termed âfuneral leaveâ 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. âA lot of times, there arenât funerals,â Zinder says. âThere are other ways of celebrating [someoneâs life]. When there wasnât an actual funeral, we sometimes ran into problems getting pay. We just changed the reference of âfuneral leaveâ to âbereavement leaveâ in our retail food contract.â
âYou get a hardcore employer, and you get a problem,â she adds. âWhen thereâs no funeral, what do you do?â (Vons, Albertsons, and Ralphs have not responded toÂ In These Timesâ request for comment.)
The UFCW has also bargained for increased flexibility regarding timeframe of leave. Zinder saysÂ 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 workerâs right. Still, amid the threat of corporate adversaries and a long history of policymaking in their favor, the struggle to secure bereavement leave continues.
âI think that if we truly care about workers, which Iâm not sure that we do as a society, but if we want to truly care about workers, bereavement leave is essential,â saysÂ Millard. âWe have trauma, trauma affects people, people are workers, and yet weâre not doing what we need to do to get them where they need to be.â
Baker adds, âWhile 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.â
This article originally appeared on Inthesetimes.com on September 23, 2019. Â Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: 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.