This past week, the White House inadvertently brought to light some truths about domestic violence, but for all the wrong reasons. Top officials appear to have ignored accusations of domestic violence that surfaced in former aide Rob Porter’s background check, until a news report forced his departure.
US president Donald Trump fretted over Porter’s future employment prospects. But elected officials in cities, states, and at least one other nation are moving in the opposite direction, introducing laws for victims that put domestic violence squarely in front of employers.
Members of two of Australia’s political parties called for a federal law mandating 10 days of paid leave for those dealing with abuse at home, picking up on years of activism and progress within Australian unions, which have negotiated to secure the benefit for members. In the US, the cities of New York, San Francisco and Minneapolis, and the states of California and Washington have passed laws creating paid “safe leave.” In Canada, paid days off for victims are now available in the provinces of Manitoba and Ontario.
The point of safe leave is to give victims—typically women, and often mothers—time to attend the meetings with police, doctors, lawyers, or therapists and school officials they might require. It means they can stay safe, and financially secure, as they cut ties to their abuser. “It’s meaningful relief,” says Rachel Braunstein, a lawyer with Her Justice, a women’s rights group that helped craft the New York law.
Domestic violence is still largely, and falsely, considered a private matter, something that happens in the realm of the home, and is therefore not a work or company problem. But employees distracted with a volatile situation at home are less productive, while employers are forced to absorb the costs of turnover when victims leave or whose positions are terminated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that intimate partner violence causes US victims to lose 8 million days of paid work per year.
Women should not have to choose between keeping a job and staying in a treacherous situation, as Adam Bandt, a member of Australia’s parliament, told his peers recently. “This impossible choice is a false choice,” he said.
Politically, domestic violence is not a partisan issue. But the suggestion that paid leave be mandated for any reason can rankle businesses. Australia’s chamber of commerce opposes the bill there, claiming it could cost employers as much as $205 million (US$162 million) to create a even a single day of domestic violence leave per worker, annually. But that figure is wildly inaccurate, say the unions who say it would cost about $12 million (US$9.5 million).
More significant, however, is the enormous moral cost of ignoring what is predominantly a gendered crime. “We’re in a moment right now where women are coming forward to talk about workplace violence,” Kathleen Wynne, Premier of Ontario, told Quartz. She sees her province’s paid leave option as one of many steps, including a higher minimum wage and better access to childcare, “necessary to support women in that process and make the workplace more equitable.”
In the US and globally, it’s estimated that nearly one in three women have experienced violence at the hands of their partner in their lifetime. As laws emerge to support victims, companies within every industry will be called to help de-stigmatize the issue, in the same ways that #MeToo is addressing sexual violence within the workplace. Otherwise, it will likely continue to fester.