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This morning Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) announced the introduction of the Security and Financial Empowerment (SAFE) Act of 2015, building on the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA, known colloquially as Obamacare).
“I can’t tell you how many women would have to switch jobs because they would go to work and their abuser would be there,” Katie Ray-Jones, the President and CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, tells Yahoo Health. “And so they would have to leave that job. And lose their income until they found a new job. And then be in a shelter. It’s a cycle you just can’t get out of.”
The SAFE Act would ensure that domestic violence survivors who need services like medical attention and legal assistance can take leave from work, allow survivors who have to leave their jobs to receive unemployment insurance, and protect survivors from being fired because of harassment by an abuser.
“Survivors should not have to choose between economic security and safety,” said Murray in a media statement. “The SAFE Act would take critical steps to ensure survivors aren’t trapped in abusive relationships for financial reasons, and can seek protections at work without fear of punishment.”
It is estimated that survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking lose nearly eight million days of paid work – the equivalent of more than 32,000 full-time jobs. While the Family and Medical Leave Act can be used to care for a sick or injured family member (including a spouse), it makes no such accommodations from those trying to seek protection from an abuser – a person who is, oftentimes, a spouse. Furthermore, only 33 states and the District of Columbia have laws that explicitly provide unemployment insurance to survivors of domestic violence under certain circumstances; only 17 states provide survivors with leave from work to go to court, go to the doctor, or to take other protective measures.
“I can tell you from working in the field for over 15 years, it’s always been a challenge and it’s always been disheartening for the survivor when their harasser knows her workplace. The SAFE ACT helps to address the challenges and barriers survivors face when trying to leave an abusive relationship in the safest way possible,” says Ray-Jones.
“When I was elected to the United States Senate in 1993, domestic violence was widely seen as just a family problem, something friends and neighbors – and the government – should stay out of. So it wasn’t talked about publicly, and that made it even harder for women to seek help.” Sen. Murray told attendees of the Domestic Violence Services of Snohomish County’s Hope Within Luncheon on October 13.
“But I – and many of my colleagues in the Senate – had heard too many stories about what domestic violence, and a culture of simply staying out of it, meant for women and families,” Sen. Murray continued. “We heard from women who struggled with things we all take for granted, like going to the grocery store or picking the kids up from school. Women who didn’t know where they would sleep at night, or who stayed in abusive relationships so their children would have health care.”
It was stories like these that led Murray and many others, including now-Vice President Joe Biden, to act to pass the Violence Against Women Act. The introduction of the SAFE Act is a critical next step.
The SAFE ACT would allow a survivor to take up to 30 days off from work in a 12-month period, including seven days of paid time off consistent with the Health Families Act, to receive medical attention, seek legal assistance, attend court proceedings, and get help with safety planning, lessening the financial impact to the survivor. It would also protect employees from being fired because they were harassed by their abuser, obtained protective orders, participated in the criminal or civil justice process, sought modifications at work to increase workplace safety in response to domestic or sexual violence, or were subjected to exploitation of intimate partner images.
The bill would also require employers to make reasonable safety precautions or job-related modifications if requested by an employee and ensure that survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking who have been separated from their employment as a result of such violence are eligible for unemployment insurance.
Ray-Jones notes that the introduction of the SAFE Act sends a strong message to employers about the flexibility an employee trying to leave an abusive relationship may need. “Employees are at their best when they’re safe,” she says.
Related: 7 Tough Health Issues to Discuss With Your Partner
“One in four women and one in seven men are survivors of domestic violence. There is no way that this is not touching a workplace. It’s impossible. It’s important that employers are looking for signs to protect not just the employees [in abusive relationships], but the rest of the workplace,” Ray-Jones says. She adds that, “Unfortunately we hear stories about an abuser who shows up at a workplace and kills co-workers, or an abuser who shows up at a workplace and starts screaming and yelling.”
“It’s not a nice issue to talk about,” says Ray-Jones. “It’s not uplifting, it’s not a morale booster. But most employers really care about employees. And once they find out that an employee is living in a violent situation, they want to help. They want to be pro-active and help before it becomes a tragedy. This is really critical legislation. Because it’s at the federal level, it can truly impact so many.”