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A death in the family

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 or visit for more information.

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Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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  • No Bereavement Pay
    Wednesday, December 20, 2017 12:38:00 PM by Jeffrey R. Smith
    No, there is no legal entitlement to paid leave. Ontario workers are entitled to unpaid personal emergency leave. Many employers have their own policies granting paid bereavement leave, but the ESA only provides for unpaid leave.
  • unpaid leave
    Tuesday, November 14, 2017 9:49:00 AM by Jeffrey R. Smith
    Sick leave and bereavement leave are often treated as different types of leave in employer's policies, but not always. It depends on the particular policy. Employers are not bound by law to provide specific types of leave, but in many jurisdictions they are required to provide a certain amount of unpaid emergency leave.

    For example, in Ontario, employers with 50 or more employees must allow employees to take up to 10 unpaid days of personal emergency leave per year for illness, injury, or other urgent matters. The death of certain specified family members is included as a reason for such leave. However, if the 10 days annual maximum is reached, employers have no legal obligation to allow more.
  • Company policies and legislated leave
    Friday, September 15, 2017 8:51:00 AM by Jeffrey R. Smith
    Company bereavement leave policies specify what familial relationships are eligible for paid bereavement leave. Some are for immediate family only, some are more flexible. It also depends on the jurisdiction in which you live. Some jurisdictions, like Ontario mentioned below, require employers to allow a certain number of days of unpaid emergency leave. If your company doesn't allow bereavement leave for uncles and you can't take vacation leave, you should investigate the legal obligations of your jurisdiction regarding personal emergency leave.
  • breavement leave
    Monday, February 22, 2016 10:03:00 AM by Jeffrey R. Smith
    A lot depends on the status of the employer. Under Ontario legislation, employees are entitled to up to 10 days of unpaid personal emergency leave (including for a death in the family), if the employer has more the 50 employees total at all locations (including part-time and casual employees).

    Federally-regulated employees are entitled up to three days of paid bereavement leave immediately following the day of the family death, if the employees have more than three months of consecutive employment with the employer. If less than three months of service, the days can be unpaid.

    Outside of the legal considerations, there's also the factor to keep in mind of the damage to morale or productivity if an employee isn't allowed to grieve the death of a family member with some time away from work.