After a campaign by a bereaved mother, the Government has confirmed that, from April 2020, parents who suffer the death of a child will have the right to take 2 weeks' parental bereavement leave.
What does the new right entail?
The new right will apply to all employees who are parents, or have parental responsibility for a child, who suffer the loss of a child under the age of 18. It includes stillbirths after 24 weeks of pregnancy (in which case the mother will also be entitled to statutory maternity leave and pay).
Where the parent or care has been employed for at least 26 weeks before the child’s death, the leave will be paid (expected to be at the same rate as statutory maternity pay); employees with shorter service will be entitled to take the same amount of leave but the employer is not obliged to pay them.
How should employers prepare?
Employers will not be entitled to ask for a copy of the child's death certificate as evidence, so will need to ensure that their procedures for claiming the leave are not unnecessarily intrusive. The statutory pay will be reclaimable from HMRC in the same way as statutory maternity pay.
It's also a good opportunity for employers to review their policies on bereavement more generally. Most employers offer bereaved staff a period of compassionate leave, but it's often unpaid and rather inflexible. Typically businesses offer about a week's leave, but in many cases that's barely enough to deal with practical issues arising from the death, let alone to be in a fit state to return to work. Instead, allowing employees to take time off on a flexible basis to deal with logistics as necessary could reap dividends – it may reduce the likelihood of staff becoming overwhelmed and needing to take long-term sick leave.
It's also worth considering the gaps in current legal protections and where the employer could offer more generous terms. For example, employers may wish to take a more flexible approach to female staff who suffer a miscarriage or a stillbirth before 24 weeks of pregnancy (who won't be covered under the new rules). Treating this as purely a medical issue, rather than the loss of a child, could cause severe distress. Allowing those staff to take additional compassionate leave on top of any leave required for medical reasons is a modest accommodation which could help their recovery.
At the same time, employers need to remember that an intrusive or overbearing approach could cause offence – and that staff have the right to privacy. All policies and processes should be designed with this in mind. Although navigating these issues is not always easy, being able to offer appropriate support to staff is certainly worth the investment of time.