By Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JAN. 9, 2012….Domestic violence victims would be guaranteed leave from their jobs under legislation that received initial approval in Senate Monday and has the backing of two major employer groups.
The law would require Massachusetts employers with more than 50 employees to give up to 15 days of leave in any 12-month period to someone suffering from domestic violence abuse. Immediate family members of victims would also be eligible for leave. The bill does not mandate the leave be paid.
Victims of domestic violence, stalking or sexual assault would be eligible for leave, which is intended to allow them to appear in court, receive medical attention or counseling, victim services, housing or legal assistance, or handle other issues directly related to the abuse. Employees would first be required to exhaust their vacation, sick days or personal leave, but employers can waive this requirement.
Maureen Gallagher, the policy director at Jane Doe. Inc., said the bill addresses a key need of victims of domestic violence: knowing their jobs are secure so they can find the courage to leave their abusers. Jane Doe is a statewide coalition working against sexual assault and domestic violence.
“If they lose their job because they have missed work, that sets them back. They may return to an unsafe situation,” she said. “This is a key economic empowerment tool.”
Gallagher said abuse counselors at Jane Doe have heard many stories about victims losing jobs or fearful of the possibility, making it hard for them to get the services they need.
Sen. Cynthia Creem (D-Newton), one of the bill’s lead sponsors, said statistics show between 25 to 50 percent of violence victims have lost a job because of absences stemming from abuse. Victims report being harassed for missing days, or are often afraid to tell their employers why they need to miss work.
“This would be a further protection to them,” Creem said.
A similar bill passed in the Senate last session but never emerged for a House vote, ending the session in the House Ways and Means Committee. The full Senate is expected to debate the bill on Thursday during a scheduled formal session. Creem said the Senate is taking the bill up early in the second year of the session to give the House plenty of time to review it.
Gallagher said she is unsure why the leave bill has never made it to the governor’s desk, considering there is no known opposition to the idea. The bill is sponsored by Creem in the Senate, and has a handful of sponsors in the House, including Rep. Frank Smizik (D-Brookline), Rep. Ruth Balser (D-Newton), Rep. Gloria Fox (D-Roxbury) and Rep. Denise Andrews (D-Orange).
“We are talking with representatives and building up peoples’ understanding about this bill,” Gallagher said. “We are hopeful we will find those champions and get it on their radar.”
Some statewide trade organizations and employer groups support the bill, including Associated Industries of Massachusetts, which raised concerns in the past, and the Retailers’ Association of Massachusetts.
John Regan, executive vice president for government affairs, said A.I.M. worked with representatives from Jane Doe Inc. to address employer issues. The bill balances the needs of domestic violence victims with those of employers by specifically detailing how and when the leave is taken, Regan said.
“Clearly, the situation the proponents are trying to deal with is horrific. You, of course, sympathize,” Regan said. “Most employers, if one of their employees found themselves in this type of situation, would want to do everything they could to help.”
Those using the domestic violence leave would need to give their employer advance notice, when possible. In cases of “imminent danger” they would not be required to notify their bosses. Victims are also required to provide specific documents such as a court order, police report, guilty plea, conviction or adjudication of delinquency, medical documentation, or a sworn statement from a victim advocate or other representative.
Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers’ Association of Massachusetts, called the bill “reasonable” and said of all the employee leave bills before the Legislature, the domestic violence bill is not one that would negatively impact employers.
“Of all the various leave bills out there, whether it be maternity, family leave, paid sick leave, this certainly would be one we aren’t opposing,” Hurst said.
Smizik, a Brookline Democrat who is one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said domestic violence has been an issue he has cared about for many years, following the death of a couple of women in Brookline at the hands of their abusers.
“It doesn’t matter what the income level or the nature of the community, it is everywhere,” Smizik said.
Smizik said victims of domestic violence need to take time off from work to get their lives back together.
“Their lives have been so seriously affected. They need time to address it, seek help, and figure out how to move on,” he said.