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  1. Blog
  2. Inclusive Benefits
  3. June 27, 2024

What You Need to Know About Gender-Based Violence Paid & Protective Leave

Plus, how companies can ensure employees feel comfortable using their leave

woman silhouette in black and white
Photo courtesy of Wepe Receh

Roughly 40 percent of women experience physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime, and over 61 million women experience psychological aggression by a partner in their lifetime. 

Domestic violence has profound, multifaceted effects on survivors, impacting physical, emotional, and psychological wellbeing. Abuse can lead to chronic physical health issues caused by ongoing stress and trauma as well as severe mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Often, abuse hinders survivors' ability to maintain stable employment or access resources for help, further trapping them in a dangerous situation. These compounded effects not only undermine survivors' immediate wellbeing but also have long-term repercussions on their ability to rebuild their lives and achieve financial stability. Between 21–60 percent of survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) lose their jobs due to reasons stemming from abuse. In total, the estimated lifetime cost for women affected by IPV is $103,767

In an effort to provide critical support, some local governments, states, and workplaces are enacting laws and policies to enable survivors to take the necessary steps to maintain their employment, safety, and wellbeing. 

What types of leave and protections currently exist for domestic abuse survivors? 

Currently, there are no federal statutes guaranteeing gender-based violence paid and protected leave. Only nine states, plus Washington, D.C., require workplace accommodations for survivors. However, more than a dozen states, including California, New York, Florida, Illinois, and Washington, as well various cities and counties, have enacted “safe leave” laws that allow employees affected by domestic violence to take time off work.

For example, under the New York City Earned Safe and Sick Time Act, employers with more than five employees must provide paid safe and sick leave, where employees earn one hour of safe and sick leave for every 30 hours worked. Other states, including Florida and Washington, allow employees to take “reasonable leave” from work for domestic violence-related reasons. However, this leave can be paid or unpaid, depending on individual employers’ policies.

“Since safe leave laws have been adopted on a local level, there is significant variation in policy implementation, including differences in whether the leave is paid or unpaid, the limitations on how the leave can be used, and whether it can be used to assist a family member experiencing violence,” says LaVonne Pepe, a consultant and social worker with expertise in inclusive violence prevention strategies. “Generally, safe leave is protected time off from work that survivors of gender-based violence can use to address issues related to the violence they have experienced. This can include seeking medical care, accessing or preparing for legal services or proceedings, relocating to safety, obtaining safe child care, and accessing victim-service provider support services, among other things.”

For employees who don’t have access to paid leave, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is an option for taking time off. FMLA is a federal law that provides eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year for specified family and medical reasons. Employees who have experienced domestic violence might qualify for FMLA leave if they have physical injuries or have developed psychological trauma as a result of the abuse. Although well-intentioned, the process of proving harm can be further traumatizing for survivors.

When FMLA isn’t applicable or survivors don’t want to have to relive their trauma, “Safe leave is needed because FMLA is limited to covering serious physical or mental health needs and does not address needs that are not medically related,” says Pepe. For example, gender-based violence can lead to significant financial burden for many individuals. She says, “Providing paid safe leave benefits survivors, their families, organizations, and the economy as a whole.”

Research shows that sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, and harassment result in significant economic losses due to decreased productivity and frequent turnover, costing the economy a lot of money annually. In fact, the cost of IPV exceeds $8.3 billion per year in the United States. 

“Survivors can use safe leave to access the resources and support they need without the fear of losing their jobs or sacrificing a paycheck,” Pepe says. “This helps them maintain employment and economic stability and reduces their dependency on an abusive partner. For family members, safe leave offers flexibility for loved ones to leave an abusive partner, seek legal protections, better ensure the safety of involved children, and achieve financial independence. It supports the economy by keeping people employed and productive.”

Read more: You Can Take Time Off After a Miscarriage. Here’s How to Do It.

Why don’t we see more companies offering safe leave? 

“In a country where we struggle to provide paid parental leave, guarantee FMLA, or offer any guaranteed leave at all for low-wage workers, it is unsurprising to me that gender-based violence paid and protected leave is not a widely provided policy,” says Pepe. “On top of that, there is often a lack of understanding and support for the complexities of gender-based violence as a whole, making it difficult for survivors to be believed and supported.”

Paid leave is often viewed as an additional financial burden, and most employers don’t fully understand the critical role that workplace support can play in helping survivors. Stigma and misconceptions about IPV exist to a great extent—many employers categorize it as a personal issue rather than a workplace concern. This mindset prevents the development and implementation of necessary and supportive policies. 

“Offering paid leave is not an inexpensive benefit, and where there are billions of dollars lost every year due to gender-based violence, those aren’t dollars that companies have already accounted for,” Pepe says. “It’s not uncommon that decision-makers within organizations are often disconnected from the needs of their employees, and I imagine the disconnect is greater for leaders to internalize the reality that employees within their organizations may need access to this benefit.”

Especially in the absence of federal mandates requiring paid leave for domestic violence survivors, companies might not feel knowledgeable enough or compelled to adopt policies voluntarily. But policies are absolutely needed, and the burden of finding a solution should be on the government and company leaders, not survivors who are already struggling. 

“Gender-based violence affects astronomical numbers of people daily. It is human nature to distance ourselves from difficult truths, but for those of us who are able to make choices within our spheres of influence that help provide accessible options and support for people impacted by such violence—we shouldn’t take that lightly,” Pepe says. 

Read more: A Word-for-Word Guide to Discussing Mental Health with Direct Reports

How employers can ensure policy awareness and effectiveness

For companies that do offer paid leave, policy awareness is key for helping survivors. Offering the benefit is the first step in the right direction, but it’s imperative to spread the word and make sure all employees are aware of the policy and feel comfortable using it if they need it without fear of retribution or job loss. 

Create clear, accessible guidelines on how employees can request leave, what kind of documentation is required, and when the support is available. Develop safety plans to protect employees at work, including measures like changing work locations or schedules.

Pepe says, “Companies should adopt multiple methods of communication, including mentioning the availability of leave at employee orientations and trainings, within employee handbooks, as well as providing occasional updates about policies through email or 1:1s with managers. Employers can use current events or awareness and prevention months as an opportunity to resurface or highlight the policy.”

Additional support systems are needed to accompany paid and protected leave, including:

  • Employee assistance programs (EAPs): EAPs can provide domestic abuse survivors with a safe space and confidential access to counseling services, legal advice, and support resources to help them navigate their situation and recovery.

  • Mental health benefits and wellness incentives: Wellness incentives can provide survivors with access to mental health services, fitness programs, and other resources that promote healing and wellbeing. Mental health support or stipends can allow access to therapy to help address emotional and psychological trauma.

  • Training for managers: Talking about grief, mental health, and physical safety can be challenging to navigate as a manager. Leaders can help by offering regular training on recognizing the signs of gender-based violence and how to support affected employees appropriately and sensitively.

The importance of sensitive and inclusive language surrounding IPV and paid leave policies

“Most people understandably do not want to identify themselves as victims and may not have ever used that language to describe their experiences,” Pepe says. “Leaders and relevant personnel should be trained to discuss these issues in a way that helps individuals internalize the message that ‘support is available,’ rather than feeling defensive or singled out.”

Framing policies from a bystander perspective can be effective in communicating protocols and encouraging employees to seek support. For example, instead of saying, “We have a domestic violence policy with safe leave if you need it,” Pepe suggests saying, “We truly value our team, and as part of demonstrating our values, we have gender-based violence paid and protective leave policies. It’s important to know how to access these benefits because you never know who might benefit from them. This is great information to share with colleagues if needed.

“I’d recommend using broad language to describe the policy, ensuring benefits are accessible and flexible. Given that gender-based violence can disrupt various aspects of people’s lives, it’s important to avoid rigid language that might exclude someone from qualifying for the policy,” says Pepe. “The process for accessing these benefits should be straightforward, minimizing the need for extensive documentation. Make sure confidentiality policies are in place and that employees are aware of them. Survivors are already in vulnerable positions, and requiring cumbersome processes or detailed disclosures could be significant barriers to accessing the necessary services.”

It’s also important to note people with marginalized identities experience gender-based violence at disproportionately higher rates. The National Institute of Health (NIH) reports:

“Even though IPV affects women across racial and ethnic groups and socioeconomic status, historically marginalized women are at greatest risk: 56.6% of multiracial women, 45.1% of Black women, 47.5% of Native women, and 54% of disabled women experience IPV in their lifetimes. In addition, IPV disproportionately affects LGBTQ+ people, whose experiences are often invisible and whose safety is often ignored by the legal and healthcare systems.”

When developing and speaking about policies, avoid assumptions about the gender of survivors or perpetrators—domestic violence can occur in any type of relationship, including same-sex partnerships and non-marital relationships. Use gender-neutral language including “they/them” pronouns instead of “he/she” and “partner” instead of “husband/wife.” 

“Ensuring there are other efforts at play to support these communities, like anti-discrimination training, training around equity and inclusion, and the use of inclusive language can help create a more inclusive, equitable, and psychologically safe workplace where everyone is holistically doing their part to create stronger work cultures,” says Pepe. 

Read more: How to Respectfully Bring Up Partners & Relationships at Work

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