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), provide entitlements above and beyond those of the FW Act by offering their employees a workplace-specific ‘pet leave’ to care for a sick or injured pet.

Some businesses go further by also providing leave to employees adopting a pet, for the purpose of introducing the pet to its 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, such as 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. Long-term, 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’s 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 goldfish 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 won’t need to be replicated. Employers can reap the benefits of supporting employees through difficult times with their pets, while managing their labour costs in a similar way: particularly where employees might 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 expand access to existing leave, whether as a result of the potential or perceived cost, potential for exploitation, or 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 an employer 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 managed properly, as an employee distracted by worry, care requirements or grief is unlikely to be as productive as usual, employers should consider agreeing to the employee taking annual or unpaid leave to cover their absence. This supports the employee without an immediate financial cost to the business, although the employees role may need to be covered during the time off work. Whatever agreement you enter into, we advise confirming it in writing (even if it’s just a text or quick email) to ensure you maintain a record of the agreement and the leave type.

Key tips

  1. Consider in advance what pet leave entitlements you’re prepared to offer your employees so you can be ready for requests.
  2. If over and above the provisions of 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

enableHR has powerful features that let you quickly and easily create new workplace policies and make them accessible to employees. If you’re not already a client and would like more information about the benefits enableHR can bring to your business, contact us for a chat about your needs and a free demo of the software. It really is HR made simple!

 Ceri Hohner is a senior associate and solicitor at FCB Workplace Law (enableHR’s parent company). As a workplace relations expert, she has assisted hundreds of clients from a range of industries and businesses across Australia.