Barry Kluger was on the 10th green when he got a message to call a nearby hospital.
“They said, ‘Your daughter’s been in an accident,’” he recalls nearly 21 years later. “I said, ‘How bad is it?’ They said, ‘Bad.’ What they hadn’t told me is that she’d been dead for 17 minutes.”
Kluger’s only child, Erica, was 18 years old when she died in a car accident just three and a half miles from the family’s home in Scottsdale, Arizona. She was a student at Scottsdale Community College, still deciding what career path to take. Kluger wouldn’t have been surprised if she followed him into his chosen field of public relations.
“If you walked into Erica’s school and looked for her, she wasn’t in the classroom,” he says. “She was in the cafeteria, perched on a table with a bunch of people sitting around her waiting to hear, what’s going on in Erica’s mind today? She was a real mini me.”
Kluger was devastated; thankfully, clients at his public relations firm understood when he took some time off to grieve. In the days and months following the loss, he began to think about other parents in his situation who weren’t guaranteed the right to take time away from their jobs in their time of need.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management, only 60 percent of private sector workers get paid time off following the loss of a loved one. And even then, the average bereavement leave allotted for the death of a child or spouse is just four days.
“You don’t want your kids in a school bus driven by someone who just lost a child,” Kluger says. “You don’t want to fly in a plane being piloted by someone who just lost their child. You don’t want a doctor operating on you days after losing a child, because their heart is broken and their mind is somewhere else.”
So in 2010, he began lobbying Congress to pass a law that would allow workers time off following the death of their child. He wrote op-eds on the issue for newspapers including USA Today, was interviewed on various news outlets including CNN, and penned a memoir titled A Life Undone: A Father’s Journey Through Loss. A Chicago man named Kelly Farley, who had lost two children, read one of Kluger’s pieces and contacted him. The two teamed up to push the Sarah Grace-Farley-Kluger Act, which would amend the Family Medical Leave Act to allow child bereavement as a qualification for the maximum 12 weeks of job-protected leave. The bill is named for Sarah Grace Weippert, a 12-year-old New Yorker who died of leukemia in 2002; Farley’s two children, who both died as infants; and Kluger’s daughter, Erica.
The idea enjoyed bipartisan support, but its sponsor, Representative Brad Schneider (D-IL) could never get it to the floor of the House for a vote. Late last year, Schneider had an idea. He added a measure that grants up to two weeks of paid leave for all federal workers following the death of their child to the National Defense Authorization Act. The bill passed and was signed into law by President Joe Biden.
“I consider it a victory,” Kluger says. “The old saying is the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
The next one: ensuring that all employees have the same rights that federal workers do now.
“I’m doing this for parents who don’t have an advocate,” Kluger says. “I think about Erica many times a day. It happens when I see a post from a friend of hers who just had their third kid. Erica would have turned 40, but to me, she’s 18. My wife knows that if I’m sitting somewhere and I just let out a sigh, I was thinking about Erica.”
Kluger remains hopeful that the bill will be re-introduced in 2023—and that this time it will pass.
“It’s the right thing to do. One of the greatest things you can experience is having a child,” he says. “We provide time off for that, but we don’t put enough importance on the pain of losing a child. This is good for the people who’ve lost kids, and for the people who are going to take this journey someday. People need time to grieve.”