By Jennifer L. Lippi, JD, SPHR, PHRca

Although not a popular topic, it happens – someone dies while employed. Whether it is sudden or expected, the death of an employee can be challenging for staff and management.  Management may be unclear on the short and long-terms steps to take when they receive a call from a friend or family member with news that an employee has passed.  If an employee’s death happens on the job, that is a unique matter that requires contacting Cal OSHA.    However, here are some tips on the communication steps as well as how their final pay and benefits are handled.  There is the “people side” of this and then the pay and benefits transactional side. We’ll cover both briefly here.

First things first – who to contact?  Depending on the employee’s role in the organization, it may be necessary to contact the board or senior management on how to announce this loss internally, as well as to clients and shareholders.  It’s important to contact the employee’s family to understand their wishes on the publicity around this loss.

Quite often co-workers and clients want to offer their sympathies, flowers, or donations to the family.  Assign someone in house to be the organization’s spokesperson and ask the family for a contact you may work with to avoid having employees contact them directly.

The media may be curious. We suggest having a point person to help with any public announcement by the organization.  A good PR firm or internal resources will tactfully deal with the press – and everyone is the “press” these days, so a word of caution about speaking off the record.

You may arrange for grief counseling for your employees. An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) often offers this assistance for those remaining on the job.

Naming an interim replacement and reassigning work left behind, including forwarding emails, re-recording voicemails, handling calls and rescheduling client meetings is best done quickly.  It’s embarrassing to hear an outdated voicemail that  leaves those not in-the-know making assumptions.

Some employers consider closing for all or part of the day when a co-worker has passed.  There’s lots of flexibility around this. Do what seems right. People will recall how this was handled for a long time.

You may consider creating a memorial or scholarship fund in the deceased employee’s honor.

After the initial shock and services have been held there’s the matter of closing the employee’s work accounts, payroll, insurances and such.  This is much easier if the employee had a will.  It can be tedious if an unmarried employee had no known next of kin, will or life insurance without even a beneficiary named.  You’re left with wages due and sometimes a few people lining up to collect it.  Contact an attorney to ensure you are following the laws in your state.  For example, in California if there is no surviving spouse or registered domestic partner you cannot disburse the monies until you are contacted by either the executor of the employee’s estate or the potential beneficiaries of the estate. You’re lawfully entitled to disburse the monies as directed by the executor of the estate.

In California, if there is a surviving spouse or registered domestic partner then you should have them complete the Affidavit to Collect Compensation of Deceased and Employer Proof of Identity and Disbursement of Final Pay forms. These need to be completed before you issue a final check.  Contact legal counsel if the amount owed is more than $16,625.00 net.  The final check will be issued in the spouse or registered domestic partner’s name and social security number.

The deceased employee’s health benefit will terminate upon death, but if they were married, had a registered domestic partner, or family coverage then the family will receive a continuation of health benefits offering through COBRA.

Of course, items like company life insurance, 401(k) and  short or long-term disability payments will be handled as the providers are notified by you.

We offer a more detailed document called Death Claim Procedures for Human Resources along with the forms noted above for our retained clients on our HR Library.  And, of course, we’re here to think out loud with you when the worst case happens.