These innovative states want to protect domestic violence survivors using paid “safe days”

An art installation protesting violence against women in Brazil.
An art installation protesting violence against women in Brazil.
Image: Reuters/Sergio Moraes
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Kami Reep of Sonoma County, California was let go from work twice last year—not because she wasn’t able to perform her duties as a bookkeeper or because she did her job poorly, but because she needed to take time off when her ex-husband and abuser took two of their three young children from an afterschool program and fled the state.

Reep took three days off from work without pay when her children first went missing. Before she returned to the office, Reep was notified by email that she was being fired because of the situation with her ex-husband and the “added stress.”

“I felt like no one else would hire me,” Reep says.

A few weeks later Reep did find a new job, but she was let go just two weeks later. Reep told a manager that she might have to take time off from work to testify in criminal proceedings against her ex-husband. The manager recognized her name from news reports about an Amber Alert being sent out to locals’ phones and told their boss about the incident. Reep’s new boss sent her a text message telling her not to come back to work due to “what is going on with you,” alluding to the situation with her ex-husband. Her termination notice said she was fired for “personal reasons that were not disclosed to employer at the time of hire.”

“I felt like I was being punished for something I didn’t do,” Reep says.

Reep’s story is not uncommon. According to research from the Joint Center for Poverty Research at Northwestern University, between 25% and 50% of domestic violence survivors report job loss. And, as Reep found, once you lose one job, it can be hard to recover.

Although California passed a law in September 2014 requiring employers to provide paid “safe days” for domestic violence survivors like Reep, employees in California didn’t begin to accrue days until July 1, 2015. Further, workers need to have worked for their current employee for 90 days to be eligible for the protection. Reep was terminated in May 2015 from the first job and from the second job on July 7—six days after employees could start accruing safe time.

“At the time Kami was fired, she was not yet able to use paid safe days, but state law did entitle her to take unpaid, job-protected leave for domestic-violence-related reasons,” says Sharon Terman, senior staff attorney of Legal Aid Society—Employment Law Center in San Francisco. “Now that California’s paid safe days law is in effect, Kami will be able to take time off without losing pay or risking her job.”

California is among five states (the others are Connecticut, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Vermont) and a dozen localities (including Chicago, Santa Monica, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC) that have passed “safe time” laws. This chart created by A Better Balance, a national legal advocacy organization that advocates for family-friendly laws and workplace policies, compares state and local laws offering paid sick and safe time.

On Election Day, voters in Arizona and Washington will have the option of supporting ballot initiatives that would allow victims of domestic violence to take paid time off from work, too. If Arizona’s Prop 206 passes, domestic violence survivors “wouldn’t have to miss a paycheck or make a decision between going to court or going to work, or fear losing their jobs,” says Kellie MacDonald-Evoy, public policy advocate for the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence. The Coalition estimates that about 804,000 women and 454,000 men in Arizona will experience domestic violence in their lifetime.

Like the law in California, the ballot measures in Arizona and Washington will also provide for paid sick days. Currently, neither state mandates that employers pay their workers for sick days. “The initiative is not just a way to give workers a choice when they are sick but to help as many of our vulnerable community members as possible,” says Tomas Robles, chair of Arizona Healthy Working Families, one of the groups advocating for the measure.

Going a step further, both Prop 206 and Initiative 1433 in Washington would also increase the minimum wage in each state. In Arizona, the minimum wage would be raised from $8.05 to $10 in 2017, $10.50 in 2018, $11.00 in 2019, and $12 in 2020. In Washington, the minimum wage would increase from $9.55 per to $11.00 in 2017, $11.50 in 2018, $12.00 in 2019, and $13.50 in 2020.

The move to combine the two issues—paid leave and an increase in minimum wage —is becoming more common and, in many cases, giving a boost to efforts to increase the minimum wage. “People thought those two issues were competing, but now people see the connection,” says Ellen Bravo, director of Family Values @ Work, an organization that advocates for paid family leave and sick leave. While many people are affected by minimum wage, not everyone sees the value of increasing the minimum wage, she says. But almost everyone understands the value of paid sick days. “You don’t want the person making your lunch or driving your kid’s school bus to be sick.”

Importantly, there’s a huge difference between offering time off, and offering to pay for that time. Even though some states, like Washington, offer unpaid sick and safe time, most workers can’t take advantage of it, says Traci Underwood, economic justice program coordinator at the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “Many have to make the choice between paying rent or the utility bill or going to court to get a protection order,” Underwood says. For instance, she says, a waitress who chooses to go to court, instead of work, gives up a day’s pay, plus tips. It is not unusual for the abuser not to show up in court on the appointed day, Underwood says, which pushes the hearing to another day. This forces the victim to decide again whether to go to court and give up income or go to work and compromise their safety. In fact, a recent report by McKinsey and Company, The Power of Parity: Advancing Women’s Equality in the United States, identifies violence against women as one of the six factors impacting pay equity in the United States.

Advocates say it’s not surprising that the issue of paid sick leave and safe time has been pushed to state and local lawmakers. “Congress unfortunately has been paralyzed by ideological leadership that has blocked any of these kinds of bills,” Bravo says. Recognizing Congress’s sluggish response, president Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13706 in 2015. The Order made paid sick leave—including safe time for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking—mandatory for federal employees.

The Department of Labor finalized those rules on Sep. 30, 2016, which was estimated to affect 1.15 million workers employed by federal contractors. Although a good start, this represents just a fraction of the estimated 150 million Americans who are part of the work force. Similarly, the ballot measures in Arizona and Washington will be little help to the many men and women across the US who would benefit from paid safe time leave. Still, Jared Make, senior staff attorney at A Better Balance, remains hopeful. The cities, counties, and states that have stepped up to support workers and their families, he says, are “setting an example that will ultimately make paid safe time a reality for all Americans.”