Cities, States Deliver Paid Leave so Survivors Can ‘Get Safe’

The lack of paid time off from work can spell economic disaster, or worse, for people escaping abuse.

Shawnu Ksicinski, a worker rights’ advocate, told Rewire about domestic violence survivors “fired for showing up with bruises on their face.”

“They lost their jobs because instead of staying home, or being able to seek medical assistance, they were going to work,” said Ksicinski, Duluth program manager with TakeAction Minnesota. The organization is pushing for paid sick time and “safe time” in cities around the state.

A growing movement is making it possible for survivors of domestic violence to take time off, with pay, to care for themselves and their families—without sacrificing their income or jeopardizing their jobs.

“To get a protective order, to get housing, to take time off for anything you might have to deal with,” said Sherry Leiwant, co-founder and co-president of A Better Balance, which advocates for workers and families. “To get safe, essentially.”

Legislators in at least seven states, 14 cities, and the District of Columbia have passed laws to make safe time available to survivors of domestic violence, according to A Better Balance. The measures also apply to survivors of sexual assault and stalking. 

A dozen safe time provisions were passed in 2016. Safe time provisions are being written into paid leave laws, even appearing in ballot measures in states with GOP-held legislatures, like Arizona.

“Most of the newer laws do include safe time, even in states where you wouldn’t expect it,” Leiwant told Rewire. “We expect to see more in the coming year in states and localities.”

Advocates say the campaigns highlight the financial toll of gender violence.

“Survivors, many times they can’t afford to take unpaid leave, so they’re put into this position of having to choose between their safety and economic security,” said Sharon Terman, senior staff attorney and head of the Work and Family Program at San Francisco’s Legal Aid at Work.

Up to 52 percent of domestic violence survivors and almost half of sexual assault survivors reported they were fired or had to quit because of the violence, according to research.

The prospect of a survivor’s financial independence can incite abusers to sabotage employment opportunities. Abusers inflict “bruises, black eyes, and cigarette burns, so the women will be too embarrassed to go to training, work, or a job interview,” according to a federal report on domestic violence among welfare recipients.

“I think increasingly there’s this recognition that financial independence and economic stability are crucial to a survivor’s ability to escape abuse,” Terman told Rewire. “Paid safe days are a really important support to ensure that survivors don’t have to risk their pay while they’re trying to stay safe.”

Paid safe time measures usually piggyback on paid sick leave laws and work in a similar fashion. Workers earn paid leave, which they can typically begin using after 90 days of employment, according to an analysis by A Better Balance. Survivors don’t necessarily have to tell their employers why they need paid time off. Under California’s law, for example, the employer needn’t “inquire into, or record” the reason the employee is taking the paid leave.

The state and local safe time measures come amid longstanding inaction in Congress. The federal Security and Financial Empowerment Act, which has been introduced several times, would require employers to provide 56 hours of earned paid leave to a worker for domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, or dating violence.

While the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) offers up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave, the leave is not paid, which discourages people with low incomes unable to afford to go without a paycheck. “It assumes you have enough economic security to take time off without pay,” Maya Raghu, director of workplace equality with the National Women’s Law Center, said of the FMLA. And because the FMLA applies to medical care, a survivor can’t use it for court hearings or to relocate.

Given the shortage of paid leave for survivors, Ksicinski said it’s important that paid sick leave campaigns recognize the needs of workers fleeing abuse. She said the group has worked closely with local domestic violence advocates and shelters to elevate survivors’ needs.

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