Should in-laws be considered the same as blood relatives in bereavement leave provisions?
By Jeffrey R. Smith
Losing a loved one is a painful experience that, unfortunately, we all must go through at one time or another.
In such a difficult time, the last thing people want to worry about is making arrangements to take time off work to attend to matters, or to have to go to work when it’s still fresh. That’s why bereavement leave is available to most employees, whether through policy or collective agreement.
Paid bereavement leave isn’t specifically covered in employment standards legislation for the most part, but many employers offer it. Usually, the amount of paid leave allowed following a death of a loved one is dictated by the relationship of the person to the employee — the death of an immediate family member warrants a few more days than a more distant relative or friend, for example.
Recently, the bereavement leave in the collective agreement for the Ontario municipality of Essex County was challenged by three of the workers. The collective agreement specified various relationships to employees and the paid leaves allowed for those relationships — five days for the death of a parent, spouse or child, three days for the death of a sibling, in-law, grandparent or grandchild and one day for an aunt, uncle, niece or nephew.
Three different county employees applied for paid bereavement leave following the death of a grandparent or great-grandparent of their spouses. The county offered to treat it as the death of a close friend — one-half day off — but such a relationship wasn’t specified in the collective agreement for bereavement leave. It couldn’t evaluate the closeness of every relationship, so it had to follow the agreement by the letter for leaves, the county said.
The union challenged this, arguing the employees were entitled to three days of paid leave as if the deaths were of their own grandparents. The majority of an arbitration board sided with the county, saying the bereavement leave provision listed specific relationships and the leaves associated with their deaths and a spouse’s grandparent was not included.
There was one dissenter on the board that sided with the union, arguing that given the purpose of bereavement leave, such provisions should be interpreted broadly and a spouse’s grandparent should be considered the same as the employee’s own grandparent, warranting the three days’ paid leave specified in the agreement.
Should such provisions be interpreted broadly or followed to the letter? An employee could be just a close or even closer to a spouse’s grandparent as to her own. Even if not, an employee would be expected to attend all family events and provide support to her spouse in the event of the death of the spouse’s family member. When an employee is married, should the spouse’s family relationships be considered equal to the employee’s own family relationships when it comes to bereavement leave?
Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.employmentlawtoday.com for more information.