Should compassionate leave be allowed in cases of pet bereavement?

This question comes after a recent news story in Glasgow, where a young employee felt unable to work after the death of her family dog. The employee in question worked part time in a small business, meaning her employer required her to arrange cover for her shift or attend work herself, or face dismissal. Unable to find cover and feeling sick with grief, the employee did not attend her shift, resulting in her employment being terminated.

The employee subsequently started a petition asking for employers to recognise pet bereavement in the same way as compassionate leave for the death of a family member. This poses some interesting questions.

The law on bereavement leave

Under the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Act 2018, parents are entitled to two weeks' leave and statutory bereavement pay if they lose a child under the age of 18.

Employees also have the right to take a "reasonable" amount of time off work in order to take action necessary to deal with situations affecting their dependants, including assisting where a dependant becomes ill, making arrangements for care or following a death. A 'dependant' could be a spouse, partner, child, parent or anyone living in the household, but it could also be someone who relies on an employee for their care, such as an elderly neighbour. There is no right for this leave to be paid.

If the deceased is not a dependant or child, then there is no statutory right to leave. Employers should consider having a policy for the granting of compassionate leave in these cases. This will not only have a positive impact on their relationship with employees, but is also helpful for managers to have a written policy when deciding in what circumstances to grant leave. Without such a policy in place, employers must use their discretion to grant leave.

Employees cannot expect to be granted leave automatically and where leave isn't granted they may have to use their holiday entitlement.

Possibilities for pet bereavement leave

While there would arguably be support for the desire to grant compassionate leave in these circumstances, especially where a pet has been part of the family for a long time, there would undoubtedly be difficulties in formally granting bereavement for the death of a pet.

Implementing any statutory right to pet bereavement leave, for example in circumstances similar to time off to care for dependants or family bereavement, would be very difficult. For example, how would you define in what circumstances pet bereavement leave would be allowed or what conditions would be attached to the leave being granted? Would this be allowed for any and all pets, regardless of how long they had been part of the family or what kind of pet it was?

Could a pet in fact be classed as a dependant under this statutory right to leave? There is a possibility that this could be overused or taken advantage of by employees. Or rather, should it be left to employers to simply determine, based on business requirements and capacity, to grant compassionate leave at their own discretion for pet bereavement?

Implication for Employers

There is currently no legal requirement for employers to allow an employee time off work following the death of a pet and there are certainly no plans for this to be forthcoming.

It is therefore down to individual employers to use their discretion to allow compassionate leave (paid or unpaid) if requested by an employee, and it is likely some employers already operate on this basis.

The capacity or willingness to do this would obviously depend on the circumstances of the employer in question. Arguably, a larger organisation would have more freedom to allow bereavement leave in these circumstances than a small employer with only a few employees whom they are heavily reliant on and would struggle to replace at short notice. Any leave would need to be granted in a reasonable, fair and consistent manner across the whole organisation.

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