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Covid-19 – How unions can help support bereaved workers

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There’s a lot trade unions can do to support people who are grieving, as well as to remember those we have tragically lost to coronavirus.

The heart-breaking number of people who have died from coronavirus is a tragedy we all feel deeply.

Too many of our friends and colleagues have fallen ill, lost their lives or are putting them risk every day at work.

Many more may need time off and additional support as they grieve the loss of loved ones.

Trade unions have been crucial in securing bereavement and compassionate leave in workplaces in the past.

We now have a role to play during this crisis to support people who are grieving, as well as to remember those we have lost.

What support is available for workers?

Time off

Any worker who needs time off for bereavement should be granted leave by an employer. Trade union reps may wish to start negotiating for this immediately where there is no existing contractual provision.

Workers have a legal right to time off work if they experience the death of a dependant (for example their partner, parent, child, or someone else who relied on them). While there is no legal right to time off for the loss of other loved ones, many contracts, company policies, and staff handbooks will include a clause about compassionate leave. Trade union reps should bear in mind that certain sections of the workforce may have different provisions, for example, agency staff versus those permanent contracts.

Failing that, unions may wish to push for new allowances for bereavement leave, or for time off to be considered as paid sick leave at an employers’ discretion. No worker should be financially penalised for needing time off to grieve the death of a loved one, nor should they face any kind of disciplinary action.

Pastoral care

The death of a colleague can have a long-lasting impact on workers' mental health and on the working environment. We all need to offer each other as much support as possible, and demand that bosses do the same.

Some employers offer employee assistance programmes and access to counselling and other mental health support services. Unions should request these services be advertised and made widely available at this crucial time. In the event that a co-worker dies, access to such support where it does not already exist should be requested by unions.

Employers should also contact the family of a worker to offer condolences and agree to a point of contact to offer advice and guidance. Families may have questions about pay, pension arrangements or death in service insurance. There may also be existing schemes which offer financial support towards the cost of a funeral, or a donation to a fund.

Financial support

There are other forms of support workers can access. The government provides some financial support to those on low incomes. The funeral expenses payment is a grant towards the cost of a simple funeral for people on certain benefits. As of last week, the maximum sum has risen to £1,000. There is also a Bereavement Support Payment for people who have lost a spouse or civil partner.

Some unions have benevolent funds that can support the cost of funerals or other needs, which members may wish to apply to.

There are other organisations who can support during bereavement. Union reps may want to signpost to bereavement charities or religious chaplaincies where appropriate.

Reporting deaths

Employers must report Covid-19 related deaths, and unions should confirm this is happening. If a registered medical practitioner confirms a person’s death is as a result of work-related exposure to coronavirus, this must be reported to the Health and Safety Executive within 10 days.

You can submit a report to HSE.

Activists at Hazards Campaign are also tracking the names and jobs of workers who are reported to have died as a result of coronavirus. You can help with this crowd sourcing effort by submitting to the Google Sheet.

Remembering lives lost

Remembrance is an important part of the grieving process. It can give us an opportunity to reflect, mourn, share memories of a loved one and give dignity to those who have lost their lives.

There may be practical steps unions can take to remember colleagues, like opening a book of condolences or setting up an online memorial page. Some branches have established online fundraisers for a charity close to their colleague’s heart, or to raise money for the family to cover the cost of a funeral.

Experiencing a bereavement in isolation will be particularly tough. Attendance at funerals is currently restricted due to social distancing measures, but a minute’s silence or vigil could allow colleagues to come together to remember collectively. Union branches may also wish to send a card, flowers or other tokens to the family.

On Tuesday 28th April, the trade union movement marks International Workers' Memorial Day (#IWMD20). This year, the number of people who have died in work will be far higher because of coronavirus. We will be marking a minute’s silence at 11am on the Tuesday 28th April to remember every worker who has died from the disease. Details of other actions and resources for the day can be found on the TUC's dedicated page.

The TUC will fight to maintain the memory of every workers' life lost. We will fight for the justice of their colleagues, friends, and families. And we continue to fight for a future where no worker must risk their health or their life when going about their job.

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