Air Force considers allowing airmen to attend funerals without charging leave

"Fundamentally, I think bereavement leave is the right thing to do.”

Nearly two years after then-Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright first said he wanted it, the Air Force is still working on a policy that would allow airmen to take time off to grieve the death of a family member or similar hardship without it counting towards their 30 days of annual leave time.

The top enlisted leader of the Air Force, Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne Bass, told Task & Purpose she is a “firm believer” in creating a bereavement leave category, but there are several hoops to jump through before such a policy can become real, including Congressional approval. And the Air Force is also working with other services to possibly create a joint policy.

“It’s something we are currently getting after and working with our sister-service senior enlisted leaders to find the best way forward to take care of our people,” Bass said. “In the interim, we are looking at other options for our airmen to have the time needed to grieve over the loss of a family member through non-chargeable means.”

To be clear, at the moment the Air Force does not have a specific bereavement leave policy for airmen who need to take time off to tend to loved ones who are sick or who have passed away. Airmen currently can take emergency leave, where they pull from their 30 days of normal leave time, or they can take emergency leave of absence, a new option that was announced last September.

The new option gives airmen up to 14 consecutive, nonchargeable days to attend to the death or serious medical condition of an immediate family member or other appropriate hardship without counting towards the airman’s total leave days. The problem is, emergency leave of absence can be granted only once in an airman’s entire career; it is only used to cover immediate family members; and it exists only to prevent the airman from going over their 30-day annual leave cap. So if you’ve already used the option or if you are far from your leave cap for the year, or if it’s not involving a close family member, you’re out of luck.

The terms ‘emergency leave’ and ‘emergency leave of absence,’ are way too similar to keep from getting them confused, so here is a breakdown to make things easier:

Emergency leave: Counts towards normal leave, no restrictions on how often it can be granted.

Emergency leave of absence: Does not count towards normal leave; lasts up to 14 consecutive days; can only be granted once in an airman’s career and only if they are close to hitting their normal leave cap; and only for immediate family members.

Former Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Wright first made a call for nonchargeable bereavement leave in 2019. He pointed out that airmen must currently pull from their 30 days of normal leave for bereavement trips. That’s unfortunate for airmen who, for example, spend their workdays getting fried at under-staffed maintenance shops and then have to spend half their allotted normal leave time planning their grandparent’s funeral.

“Someone looked and said, ‘Hey, the average E-4 or E-5 has a set number of days of leave on the books already, and they should be using that leave,’” Wright told Air Force Magazine. “That may be true. But fundamentally, I think [bereavement leave is] the right thing to do.”

Wright told the magazine that it was never a problem for him coming up in the ranks to get approval from commanders for temporary duty travel for basketball games, but when he needed travel for family reasons, he would have to use leave. Approved personal leave also might not give airmen enough time to manage the deceased’s estate or set up a funeral, he said.

Last September, the Air Force appeared to move forward on Wright’s proposal by announcing the emergency leave of absence option. However, as pointed out earlier, there are limitations on that option which might not help as much as a dedicated, nonchargeable bereavement leave category. The Air Force said it’s still too soon to tell how a potential bereavement policy might differ from those other two leave options.

“It is premature to discuss since there is not a bereavement leave policy for the Department of the Air Force,” said Air Force spokesperson Maj. Holly Hess.

Civilians employed by the Air Force already have 104 hours (13 days) of sick leave for family care of bereavement purposes. Unlike the emergency leave of absence policy, which only applies to immediate family members, the civilian definition of ‘family member’ also covers everything from grandparents to domestic partners to in-laws. There is also an advanced sick leave for more serious cases which covers up to 240 hours (30 days).

Until such a policy exists (and even after, most likely) for airmen, it is largely supervisor-dependent how much leave you might actually get to attend to a family emergency.

“Many chains, especially ones like [Security Forces] and [maintenance] deny members, based on [Air Force Instructions],” the administrator of the popular Facebook page Air Force amn/nco/snco wrote Sunday on Facebook. “They aren’t wrong, but what good chains have done and are doing is having a member do a [memorandum for record] stating the person was akin to their primary caregiver, then due to readiness, approving the Airmen’s leave. The good chains basically are taking care of their people while the AFI is being worked and the bad chains are using the AFI to deny. Pray you’re in a good chain if an extended family member dies and also pray the change happens soon before more Airmen get denied, hurting their wellness, readiness and the mission.”

Featured image: Lt. Colonel Daniel Leichssenring, 58th Operations Support Squadron, leads Airmen from the 336th Training Support Squadron into the back of a C-130J Super Hercules for an orientation of the aircraft Nov. 20, 2014, at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash (Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Alexandre Montes)

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David Roza
David Roza

covers the Air Force and anything Star Wars-related. He joined Task & Purpose in 2019, after covering local news in Maine and then FDA policy in Washington D.C. He loves hearing the stories of individual airmen and their families, and he also holds the unpopular opinion that Imperial stormtroopers are actually excellent marksmen. david.roza@taskandpurpose.com Contact the author here.

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