What Should I Do if My Employee Dies?

by Chelsea Jensen, MBA, SHRM-SCP, PHR, Human Resource Services

Bulletin,  HR Expertise and Support

SuicideThreat.BlogAn employee’s death can take an emotional toll on a department, but it can also impact department productivity and, in some cases, be quite complicated to administer. When an employee passes, there are many important items to juggle, including benefits, payroll, surviving family members, and grieving coworkers. All of these items must be addressed promptly and with great care. The immediate and thoughtful steps taken by Human Resources can determine whether employees quickly recover and resume productivity.

Here are a few important tips to help you manage an employee death:

Benefits: Benefits tend to be the most complicated and time-consuming item for an organization when an employee passes. Make sure you notify all providers of the death as soon as possible. Most providers (both retirement and health and welfare) will require you to submit the deceased employee’s death certificate. Any amounts available from a life insurance policy or retirement plan should only be communicated to the beneficiary on file.

Payroll: An uncashed paycheck issued prior to the employee’s death should be canceled, and a new check should be issued in the name of the employee’s estate, successor, or beneficiary, in accordance with state law. Some states, such as Arizona, may allow payment to a surviving spouse if the deceased employee does not have a personal representative and no appointment is pending. In the event wages are still owed the employee at the time of death, the employer must issue a check made to the beneficiary, successor, or to the estate of the employee. There may be tax implications, and you should consult with a tax expert before issuing the check. Employers will need to contact the family to determine who the estate or beneficiary contact is and be in touch with that individual. In some states, you may be required to ask for written proof that person is the proper representative. Treat paid time off (PTO), sick time, and vacation time in accordance with state law.

Surviving Family Members: If possible, have one person from your organization (preferably someone in Human Resources) manage the communication with the deceased’s beneficiaries and family members. Having one person in charge eliminates the potential for miscommunication, and the grieving family will not have to worry about being in touch with multiple people.

Grieving Coworkers: Your company’s Employee Assistance Plan (EAP) may include a grief counselor. Having a counselor available on-site for employees gives them the opportunity to talk to someone about what they are experiencing on an emotional level.

It can be awkward and very sad for coworkers to walk by a deceased employee’s desk. A nice idea may be to place a notebook and box on the old desk for current employees to write their favorite memories and submit photos. Once the notebook has comments, photos have been collected, etc., present it to the family in memory of the employee.

What if the employee dies at work? If a work-related death occurs, it must be reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA requires that any employee fatality be reported by calling or going to the local OSHA office, calling the federal OSHA office at 800-321-OSHA (6742) or filing a report online within eight hours of the employer learning of the death.

As a best practice, employers should have an emergency plan in place before a death ever occurs. The procedures to handle a death onsite should be covered in safety training.

About the author
Chelsea Jensen, MBA, SHRM-SCP, PHR, Human Resource Services

Chelsea is a consultant in Employers Council's Human Resource Services department. She works with employers on issues such as policy development, employee relations, and benefits. She also conducts training for HR and management professionals. Prior to her work at the Council, Chelsea was a Benefits Specialist at a large bank in Buffalo, NY. She received her MBA with a concentration in Human Resources from Niagara University located near Niagara Falls, NY. Chelsea has been certified by the Society for Human Resource Management as a Certified Professional (SHRM-CP).