By Ceri Hohner

Whether they’re furry, feathered, hairy or scaly, our pets are a huge part of our lives and are often considered part of the family. Many of us may have adopted pets to stave off the loneliness of the pandemic, or we’ve bonded closer with them due to working from home for so long. But do employees have an entitlement to take leave when a beloved pet falls ill, is injured, or dies?

The short answer to that question is usually no: under the definitions employed in the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) (FW Act), an employee’s eligibility for carer’s leave and compassionate leave is ascribed to human family members only, which means that our companion animals don’t make the cut. But there are a number of secondary avenues that employees and employers should consider in the event of critter tragedy.

Additional pet leave

Some employers, particularly those in the animal care sector including veterinary services and shelters, choose to provide entitlements above and beyond that of the FW Act by offering their employees a workplace-specific ‘pet leave’ to care for a sick or injured pet.

Some businesses take it a step further by also providing leave to employees adopting a pet for the purpose of introducing them to their new home. This leave is often named something appropriately creative such as  ‘pawternity leave’ or ‘furternity leave’ (although the writer of this article, a proud bird owner, wishes to remind employers that pets come in all shapes and sizes!).

Introducing pet leave into a workforce can provide a myriad of benefits to a business, including increased employee morale, better employee attraction and retention rates, boosted positive publicity and demonstration of an organisation’s commitment to non-financial goals such as family and loyalty. On a long-term perspective, such initiatives can help shape your business into a candidate for ‘Employer of Choice’ awards.

But as with all entitlements which are not governed by legislation, it will be vital to carefully define eligibility for pet leave through a comprehensive internal policy: what constitutes a pet? What is the maximum annual entitlement to such leave? What evidence must be provided to prove the employee’s eligibility? Will the company have the discretion to refuse pet leave for an employee who has adopted her sixth cat in six months, or whose goldish is looking a little peaky?

Increased eligibility for existing carer’s and compassionate leave

Rather than offering an additional leave type, some employers have made the choice to provide increased access to existing leave entitlements such as carer’s leave and/or compassionate leave where the subject of the care or bereavement is a worker’s pet.

This can often be a good balance between innovation and cost, as it may prove to be an inexpensive investment: by allowing employees to utilise their existing leave entitlements to include pets as members of their immediate family or household, the business is not taking on much of an additional burden.

While this expanded eligibility will also need to be carefully laid out in internal policies, matters such as leave accrual and evidence are already governed by the FW Act and will not need to be replicated. Employers can reap the benefits of supporting employees through difficult times with their pets, while managing their labour costs in much a similar way: particularly where employees may have otherwise faked a personal illness to stay at home with their sick pet.

Annual or unpaid leave

If a business is not prepared to offer specific pet leave or expanded access to existing leave, whether as a result of the potential or perceived cost, exploitation opportunities, or the unfairness to employees without companion animals, we recommend that managers and business owners consider other ways to support employees and their pets.

Refusing any form of leave when an employee asks for time to look after their ill or injured pet, or to grieve for their loss, is not a decision which should be made lightly: this can have massive impacts on employee productivity, trust, and longevity – not just for the individual in question, but also the wider workforce. Depending on the circumstances, such a decision could destroy years of loyalty by representing the business as uncaring, heartless or unsupportive. That doesn’t mean it’s not a decision an employer can’t make – but one which should take into account all of the potential impacts when doing so.

While we normally recommend against working from home arrangements in such situations unless it can be managed properly, as an employee distracted by worry, care requirements or grief is unlikely to be at appropriate productivity levels, employers should consider agreeing with the employee as to taking annual or unpaid leave to cover their absence. This supports the employee without an immediate financial cost to the business, although there may need to be cover arranged for the time off work. Whatever you agree, we advise confirming it in writing (even if it’s just a text or quick email) to ensure you maintain a record of your agreement and the leave type.

Key tips

  1. Consider in advance what pet leave entitlements you are prepared to offer your employees so you can be ready for requests.
  2. If over and above the FW Act, implement a policy that clearly sets out eligibility and the approval process.
  3. Make decisions on requests for pet leave fairly and equitably (and recognise the potential cultural impacts on the business).
  4. Ensure all leave policies are made accessible to employees to increase compliance with your processes and evidence requirements.

For more information on leave entitlements and employer policies, contact the team at HR Assured.  If you’d like more information about the benefits of becoming an HR Assured client contact us today for an informal chat.

Ceri Hohner is an associate and solicitor at FCB Workplace Law (our parent company) who has assisted clients across Australia from a range of industries and businesses.