In early 2013, Natasha Velez says she suffered a fractured index finger after her boyfriend at the time choked her. She quickly went to the emergency room, where a splint was put on her finger and she was referred for follow-up evaluation at a clinic.
Even with her finger in a splint, Velez still showed up for her next scheduled shift at a Chipotle in New York City. But at her follow-up appointment, the doctors told her that she had to stay away from work for an additional couple of weeks. When she returned, she says she handed her manager a copy of her protection order that prevented her abuser from coming to the workplace, but her manager still responded by firing her because she had “too many issues outside of work.”
“It’s been a bumpy ride since losing my job,” she told the New York Daily News in 2014 after she filed a lawsuit against her former employer. “Before, I was consistent with paying my bills. Now I’m in housing court for my apartment. I have a newborn baby. I’m struggling to provide for her, let alone myself.”
This week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a law that could have aided Velez had it been in place four years ago. While the city passed landmark paid sick leave legislation in 2013, becoming the largest city at the time with such a policy, it didn’t explicitly include people like Velez who may need paid time away from work to deal with violent situations. That will now change: Starting in May of next year, the new legislation will expand the city’s law to include safe time, or time off to recover from domestic violence, sexual violence, stalking, or sex trafficking.
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People who experience these types of violent acts “need time to get safe, to take care of legal problems, get protection orders, relocate,” explained Sherry Leiwant, co-president of A Better Balance, an organization that advocated for the city’s new law. “That takes time and emotional energy, and they need paid leave to do that.” Moving anything through the court system, such as a protection order, requires time: to show up for interviews, to make it to court dates, to testify. “That’s all going to be during working hours,” she noted. The same is true for anyone trying to find a new housing arrangement to either flee a domestic violence situation or get out of a shelter.
The inclusion of victims of trafficking makes New York’s law stand out, as it’s the first to mention them. “If you’re trying to get free of a trafficking situation, you’re going to need some time to do that,” Leiwant explained. With the new paid leave, victims can keep earning money at any above-board jobs they may have while trying to get free of forced prostitution or other trafficking situations.
The law should even provide assistance to undocumented city residents, who in other cases have to prove a relationship to a citizen or permanent resident. New York employers are only allowed to ask for verification of a need for leave if the time off lasts for three or more days, and they can’t require victims to disclose the nature of the violence. The city has also been clear that it’s not going to give the federal government information on undocumented residents that could lead to their detainment, although some may still fear coming forward against a boss that’s denying them the time off they deserve in today’s political climate.
New York City’s new law will also go further than most in a new way: by expanding the definition of family members for whom workers can take time off. Now workers can take paid sick leave to care for “chosen family,” not just blood relatives. “Family looks a little different than it did in the 1950s,” Leiwant said. Nearly a third of Americans have already taken time off from work to care for a friend or chosen family member, according to a fact sheet from A Better Balance and the Center for American Progress. “It’s really important to expand your notion of what family is.” Leiwant said. New York now joins two other major cities in including chosen family in its paid leave laws, Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as St. Paul and Minneapolis. But it’s still a newer trend than including safe leave.
The first paid sick leave law in the country was passed in San Francisco in 2006, but it didn’t include domestic violence other than recovering from any potential injuries sustained. Similarly, when advocates like Leiwant were pushing New York City to pass paid sick leave in 2013, one concession they made in order to secure passage was to drop safe time.
Then in 2008, Washington, D.C., became the first city to pass paid sick leave that also included safe leave. Since then, eight states and 13 cities have ensured paid time away from work is available to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking, according to Leiwant. A dozen such measures were passed last year alone, and they’re even showing up in red states like Arizona. President Obama also issued an executive order in 2015 that requires companies that contract with the federal government to offer paid sick and safe time.
For victims, paid safe leave can mean the difference between escaping a violent situation or not. Some might be able to take Family and Medical Leave Act leave to recover from an injury, but that means forgoing a paycheck. It also can’t be used for non-health-related matters such as meeting with police or attorneys, going to court appearances, getting counseling, or moving to stay safe.
Yet financial stability makes it far easier to leave an abusive situation. Nearly three-quarters of victims say they’ve stayed with an abuser longer than they would have otherwise due to economic issues. Abusers will even purposefully do things to make it difficult for victims to keep their jobs, such as giving them visible injuries or showing up at their workplaces, as a way to keep them financially dependent. Paid leave, on the other hand, means a victim can keep a steady source of income as she escapes violence.
Congress has tried to implement national policies that would give all those who experience violence and abuse paid leave to recuperate and deal with it. In a 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, some lawmakers tried to include a title that would have mandated paid leave for victims, but it was dropped from the final version. Democrats have also repeatedly introduced a paid sick leave bill that includes safe time, but it hasn’t gone anywhere.
And there’s still more work to be done to protect the economic needs of victims of domestic violence. Just nine states protect them from employment discrimination and termination based on their abuse. About half of states don’t allow them to draw unemployment benefits if they lose their jobs thanks to their abusers.