Companies expand benefits to help workers deal with sickness and death

Family medical and bereavement leave is the next frontier, and one company's foray into it could prompt others to follow

By Bloomberg News

Feb 8, 2017 @ 12:21 pm EST

Companies like Facebook have spent the last few years beefing up their parental-leave policies to attract and retain the most sought-after workers. Now they're looking at new ways to help them balance work and life.

Up next in the benefits arms race: helping workers deal with sickness and death.

With its latest update to its paid-leave policy, Facebook has upgraded employee benefits dealing with illness and death in the family — rare but increasingly sought-after offerings, especially as millennials, now the largest share of the work force, begin caring for their aging boomer parents.

In the last year, Deloitte and the Vanguard Group both started giving workers paid time off to care for sick relatives. And Facebook, as of Tuesday, now offers employees six weeks of paid time off to spend time with a family member who has a long-term illness. (They also get three paid days off to deal with a family member's short-term illness, like a kid home with the flu.) The company has also expanded its bereavement leave — up from 10 to 20 days.

"This expands the concept of what it is whole people need, what kinds of private issues they bring with them to work, and how to make space for that," said Ellen Bravo, the co-executive director of Family Values @ Work, an organization that pushes for family-friendly workplace policies.

Raising a newborn isn't the only reason an employee might need time off from work. It takes time and emotional energy to care for someone with a terminal illness or recovering from a serious health scare.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg points to her own experience to underscore the need for generous leave policies. After her husband died suddenly in 2015, the company, she wrote in a Facebook post accompanying the announcement, gave her the flexibility she needed to grieve and care for her children.

"I know how rare that is, and I believe strongly that it shouldn't be," she wrote. "People should be able both to work and be there for their families. No one should face this trade-off."

Few companies offer paid time off for anyone other than new parents, and many workers don't even have that. Only 13% of private-sector workers have access to paid family leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Family Medical Leave Act guarantees eligible workers 12 weeks off "to care for an immediate family member (spouse, child or parent) with a serious health condition" — but it's unpaid. Just 2% of companies subsidize family medical leave, the 2016 benefits report by the Society for Human Resource Management found. As for grieving, no federal law guarantees workers any time off after a close family member's death. Over 80% of companies have bereavement policies, with an average of four days off for the death of a spouse or a child, according to SHRM.

Because of competitive hiring, the technology industry offers some of the nation's most progressive parental-leave policies; in the last few years, tech companies have fallen all over themselves to provide generous packages. Other white-collar industries faced with hiring shortages — such as consulting, accounting and banking — have been quick to do the same.

Family medical and bereavement leave is the next frontier, and Facebook's foray into it could prompt other companies to follow. "Facebook is upping the ante in the race for skilled talent in the high-tech sector by expanding their paid bereavement and caregiving leave," said Lisa Horn, the head of SHRM's Workplace Flexibility Initiative.

Still, as elite companies battle over talent, only the most privileged and sought-after workers have access to the best benefits. "For the majority of people in this country," added Bravo, "we need public policy to establish minimum standards."

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