On January 1st of 2013, Natasha Velez’s then-boyfriend assaulted her, choking her and fracturing her index finger on her left hand. She went to the emergency room and ended up with her finger in a splint.
Such an ordeal is challenging and traumatizing enough. But it didn’t end there. According to Velez, she showed up early to her next scheduled shift as a crew member at a New York City Chipotle to tell her manager what had happened, showing him documentation of the police report and emergency room visit. She says she followed up later with a doctor’s note saying she couldn’t work until the 28th. Yet when she returned to work, complete with a protection order against her boyfriend prohibiting him from entering the workplace, she alleges her manager told her she “had too many issues outside of work” and fired her.
Velez sued the company, in a case that’s ongoing, claiming that it violated New York State law that prohibits employment discrimination against victims of domestic violence. New York City also has its own law banning discrimination and requiring employers to make accommodations for employees who suffer violence, including allowing them to take the time off they might need to recover, take legal action, or other steps.
In that way Velez is lucky. While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) gives any employee at a company with 50 or more employees the right to take unpaid leave for a medical issue, which victims can use to recover from injuries, they often need to take leave for a much wider number of issues: going to court appearances, meeting with lawyers or the police, getting counseling, switching locks or even moving locations to stay safe. None of that is covered by the FMLA, and only 15 states require leave for victims to take care of those needs.
“Leave is one of the most common things and most important things that survivors frequently need,” said Maya Raghu, a senior attorney with the anti-domestic violence organization Futures Without Violence. “There’s this very long list of things you have to take care of and deal with, and a lot of those necessitate time off from work.” Yet many risk their jobs and their incomes if they have to leave to deal with their abusers.
The issue got attention from state lawmakers in Illinois in 2003, which passed the country’s first statewide provision giving victims at a private employer with 50 or more employees or of a government agency up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, plus eight weeks for those at smaller companies.
Now sights have been set on paid leave. It’s recently started to gain momentum alongside the movement for paid sick days. In 2008, Washington, D.C. passed paid sick leave that also includes “safe leave” for victims to attend to all the things they need to take care of. Since then, most of the laws passed at the city and state level have included that provision. And in September, President Obama issued an executive order mandating seven paid sick and safe days at any company that contracts with the federal government.
Guaranteed pay while taking time off to recover or deal with abuse is often essential. “We know that economic security and having money and income is really, really critical to survivors being able to separate from the dangerous situation,” Raghu said. Three-quarters of victims say they’ve stayed with an abuser longer than they otherwise would have due to economic troubles.
Abusers also often use finances to exert control over their victims. As Lisalyn Jacobs, vice president for government relations at Legal Momentum, put it, “The ability of the abuser to control the pursestrings is clearly key to the control and abuse.” Paid leave doesn’t cut a victim off from her own steady source of income.
Paid leave has other important benefits beyond helping victims separate, however. It helps them to find the time to assist police and prosecutors who may be pursuing legal action against their abusers, something they may forego without the guarantee of pay and keeping their jobs. “We don’t want people to have to make that calculation,” Raghu pointed out.
A federal requirement for all companies to offer paid safe leave would make sure no victim is faced with that choice. And there have been some moves toward doing just that. In recent efforts to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, some lawmakers have included a title that would, among other things, mandate paid leave for victims. But it never got much traction and was dropped from the final reauthorization. Meanwhile, Democrats who put forward a bill to mandate paid sick leave across the country also included safe leave, although that also hasn’t moved forward.
And even the current patchwork of laws on the books may not be adequately serving victims. Paid safe leave is often left out of discussions of paid sick leave laws, leaving many people in the dark. “Because they are not necessarily talked about in that way…employers may not know, survivors may not know,” Raghu pointed out. So they may have a hard time accessing their right to paid leave.
To combat this, Jacobs said her group is pushing for a postering requirement to have employers display information about safe leave at the workplace. Meanwhile, she recently urged people in the Obama administration to include domestic violence victims when talking about sick leave, particularly around the executive order. “One of the biggest problems we as advocates face is that even where these provisions exist…people don’t know abut it,” she said.
Domestic violence victims face a whole slew of other economic hurdles covered by a spotty network of laws. Just seven states protect victims from being fired thanks to their abuse. Eighteen states and Washington, D.C. have laws to make sure that domestic violence victims can draw unemployment insurance benefits. Twenty-eight have laws that can theoretically protect victims from being evicted for calling the police on their abusers, although some are very weak. Victims in states without these protections are often exposed to economic consequences of their abuse can that make their situations far more difficult.