America’s workplace is unprepared for this grief

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The extent of our collective grief in the United States today is staggering. With more than 740,000 Americans dead from COVID-19, the country is grappling with a wave of grief. Some 72% of Americans say they know someone who has been hospitalized or has died from COVID-19. And each of those deaths affects, on average, nine people, according to a study, suggesting a “grieving burden” that could affect more than 6.6 million people. This new reality has highlighted just how ill-equipped the American workplace is to offer grieving support systems.

The United States has some of the strictest social standards of any country regarding bereavement, according to Alan Wolfelt, founder and director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition. Wolfelt calls this the “North American Resolve Resolution”, or the idea that grieving can be linear, quick and effective. After people only have a few days off, he told me over the phone, it’s time to go back to work, “step back and keep going and keep your chin up.” And this if a company even offers bereavement leave, which for many employers is unpaid. In the wake of the pandemic, some experts predict that the incidence of prolonged bereavement disorder – persistent, overwhelming grief that interferes with a person’s functioning – could increase dramatically. “For many people,” said Wolfelt, the treatment of their loss “is just beginning in those first 12 months.” Yet without federal protection in the form of a standard, paid bereavement policy, American grieving workers are subject to the whims of state legislatures and individual companies.

The priority of work over bereavement is anchored in federal labor law. The Fair Labor Standards Act, the foundation of United States labor policy, does not require employers to provide paid time off, including vacation, recuperation time, or time to plan or attend work. funeral. This contrasts with countries like France, Japan and New Zealand, which all have laws (with varying conditions) that require employees to be granted between two and five days of paid leave after a family death. In the United States, only three states have adopted their own policies, also with conditions such as company size and length of employment. Oregon requires employers to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave, two of which can be used for bereavement after the death of a family member (this will become paid coverage in 2023). Illinois offers two weeks of unpaid bereavement leave, but only after the death of a child. And Maryland recently expanded its flexible time off law to require employers who offer paid time off to allow its use during bereavement. Most states do not have laws requiring employers to offer bereavement leave, although New York and New Jersey are evaluating proposals on statewide bereavement policies.

The New Jersey proposal is remarkable because it recognizes that loss is not limited to family relationships alone. It included a clause that would provide a day of paid leave for the death of a person with whom the employee shared a “close association”, representing a wider range of interpersonal relationships. A provision like this could 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 time off after her fiancé died in September because her employer’s policy only provided for the death of children. family members and domestic partners. She said she couldn’t afford to accept their offer of unpaid leave and did not meet her monthly loan processing quota – which she attributed to the stress of working during grief – Staley was fired. “The industry is pretty ruthless, but I’m surprised they don’t have anything in place,” she said. “I didn’t feel supported.” (The company did not respond to multiple requests for comment).

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

Access to paid leave has also become 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 the nation’s earners, only about 19 percent say they can access paid funeral leave if needed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And while no one is immune to the effects of bereavement – which can manifest physically and disrupt cardiovascular function, gastrointestinal system, and concentration – low-income workers are more likely to have to work while resisting. these symptoms.

President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan initially proposed a comprehensive national paid vacation program, including three days of mourning, but that provision was removed. While a specific amount of time may not be enough for everyone who mourns, a federal guarantee of paid bereavement would have been a small but necessary step, according to Sherry Leiwant, co-founder and president of A Better Balance, a non-profit organization. lucrative focus on worker custody rights. “If you pass a law that says you are entitled to time off to bury a loved one and …” But as the number of people lost to COVID-19 continues to rise, many American workers, at least for the moment, will have to assume these burdens without guarantee of relief.


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