Employers have responsibilities to victims of domestic violence

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Employers are legally obligated to create and maintain a safe work environment, but what are their responsibilities when an employee is no longer safe in their own home?

Every minute, 20 people in the United States become victims of domestic violence, according to a study by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. It’s a crime that doesn’t discriminate by gender; one in four women, and one in 9 men are victims, the study says. And although the crime happens at home, labor experts say employers have an ethical and legal responsibility to ensure their workforce is safe.

“Domestic violence is an underreported crime. You as HR leaders can play an important role in making sure employees understand their rights and report these incidents to you,” said David Lea, regional practice lead at Reliance Standard Life Insurance, a Philadelphia-based insurance company, during a webinar with the Disability Management Employer Coalition.

COVID-19 has exacerbated the situation for many in domestic-violence situations. Since March, the Chicago Police Department says calls reporting domestic abuse have increased to more than 500 calls per week. For employers, spotting the signs of domestic abuse isn't always obvious, and with employees logging in remotely, there’s less of an opportunity to offer support, Lea said.

“It’s tough for employers to get involved, but it’s so important [that employers] take a thoughtful approach to handling these situations,” he said. “Everything needs to be confidential and handled with sensitivity. [Employees] may not take help at first, but you can keep reminding them that you can help.”

A company’s EAP can be essential in providing training for managers and HR professionals on how to recognize the signs of domestic violence. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, common signs include employees who fall behind on work, or changes in behavior.

An EAP can also offer guidance on how to approach employees who may be at risk, and provide resources for help with various personal situations in their benefit offerings.

“EAPs can connect employees with referrals to help them get an order of protection, support services and domestic violence shelters,” Gail Cohen, director of employment law and compliance at Matrix Absence Management, said. “HR should be aware of all local shelters who can help employees so they can easily refer them.”

Cohen also advised employers to look to state laws for guidance on helping employees who are experiencing domestic violence. Fifteen states, and Puerto Rico, have what are called “personal protective leave laws,” which guarantee victims of domestic violence — or in some cases, their caregivers — time off from work so they find a safer place to live and recover from an attack. Cohen said these laws extend to many more employees than most federal guidelines, so it’s important employers educate themselves about the laws in each state they operate within.

“Many of these laws don’t have the same requirements as other leave laws, like FMLA,” Cohen said. “Personal protective leave laws apply to all employees, regardless of how many hours they work and how long they’ve been with their employer.”

Personal protective leave is generally unpaid, but some states — like New York — allow companies to require employees to use available PTO. The amount of time employees are allowed to take off varies greatly by state; Colorado and Florida only allow three days off, while Illinois offers up to 12 weeks. But six states, including California, New York and Maine, leave it up to employers to decide what’s a “reasonable” amount of time employees can take off.

“Employers shouldn’t wait for an employee to need their help before figuring out what their state requirements are,” Cohen said. “They need to educate themselves, and better yet, become an advocate for their employees.”

California also requires employers to make “necessary safety accommodations” for employees who are victims of domestic violence. This includes providing flexibility on where they work, changing their work phone number and providing necessary time off. Employers in states where these things aren’t a requirement can still adopt them to help employees feel secure.

“Think about this: their partner knows where they work. So you need to think about how to protect your employee from their abuser showing up to the office,” Cohen said. “You have an obligation to keep them safe in the workplace.”

But helping victims of domestic violence is all the more complicated due to COVID-19, since quarantine is forcing many victims to shelter-in-place with their abuser. Cohen said it’s vital to maintain communication with employees while everyone is working remotely. Employers can virtually check-in with employees they believe are at-risk, and direct them to appropriate resources when necessary.

“Employees need to be able to trust you, or else they won’t reach out for help,” Cohen said. “Raise awareness of your resources in your workforce, without singling someone out.”

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Workforce management Workplace safety and security Coronavirus EAPs