Australia Mulls Mandating Paid Safe Leave for Victims of Domestic Violence

Australia Mulls Mandating Paid Safe Leave for Victims of Domestic Violence

Since December, Australia’s opposition Labor party has been pushing legislation that would require employers in the country to provide ten days of paid leave for employees to address domestic violence when either they or an immediate family member are a victim of it. The proposed legislation, which originated with the Green party and the Australian Council for Trade Unions, would allow employees to take this time to obtain legal, medical, and counseling services, attend court appointments, or make arrangements to exit abusive relationships and living situations, the Guardian reported at the time:

Employer organisations opposed the new entitlement. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry claimed it could cost employers as much as $205m to create just one day of domestic violence leave per worker per year. Unions dispute the figure and suggest the cost would be closer to $11.8m, based on estimates that 2% of female workers and less than 1% of male workers take the leave each year when it is available to them. …

About 1.6m workers currently have access to paid family and domestic violence leave through enterprise bargaining or company policy. Labor acknowledged the many employers that already provide family violence leave, including Medicare, CUB, Telstra, NAB, Virgin Australia, IKEA and Qantas.

Paid domestic violence leave or “safe leave” is rarely mandated at the national level. The only country known to have such a policy is the Philippines, where it is neither well known nor well enforced, the Australian Industry Group noted in 2016, when the ACTU first issued its proposal. It has been gaining traction at the state and local level in the US, however, and at the provincial level in Canada. California, Washington, Minnesota, and most recently Maryland allow employees to use the accrued sick leave to which they are entitled to address issues of domestic violence, as do New York City and the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Ontario.

Paid domestic violence leave has obvious financial benefits to victims and, advocates argue, less obvious benefits to their employers in terms of retention, productivity, and avoiding disruptions in the workplace. The moral argument for it is even more compelling, Lila MacLellan writes at Quartz:

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.

Mandates or no mandates, it’s long past time for employers to start taking domestic violence seriously as an issue affecting their workforce. Employers can provide critical support to victims, like paid leave, flexibility, or access to mental health and counseling services, without getting unduly involved in their employees’ personal lives. Considering that most victims of domestic violence are women, providing this kind of support can be part of a diversity and inclusion strategy to attract and retain female employees—although regardless of its benefits to an organization’s reputation, it is simply the right thing to do.

As the Guardian’s reporting suggested, many Australian employers have implemented such policies voluntarily or through collective bargaining arrangements. In fact, they have been pioneers in this regard, Paul Harpur, a law professor at the University of Queensland, noted at the Conversation back in 2016, which might explain why Australia could become the first wealthy country to enshrine domestic violence leave into law:

The paid domestic violence leave included in Victoria’s Surf Coast Shire Council in Torquay was one of the first agreements to include such leave in the world. This agreement provided survivors of domestic violence an extra 20 days a year of paid leave. Since this agreement has been struck, the number of enterprise agreements to include paid domestic violence leave has risen to cover thousands, if not tens of thousands of workers.

The Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence report, released in March 2016, identified 840 enterprise agreements that contained a family violence provision of some kind, most of them providing for family violence leave. The public sector is embracing paid domestic leave, with Victoria set to offer employees 20 days paid leave, South Australia 15 days and Queensland ten days.