It’s the advice many domestic-violence victims hear most. But leaving—the meetings with lawyers, the court appearances, the apartment hunting, the counseling sessions, the all-consuming physical and emotional path to recovery—requires time and flexibility. Dawn Dalton, the policy director at the Washington, D.C., Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said scheduling demands are consistently the largest obstacle standing between the victim and a different life: “I hear, again and again, ‘I just can’t get time off work.’”
Last week, New Zealand passed legislation granting 10 days of paid leave to victims of domestic violence, becoming the second country in the world, after the Philippines, to institute nationally mandated paid leave for domestic-violence victims. For victims, Dalton said, a paid-leave policy like New Zealand’s could be the difference between leaving and staying—or between leaving, and leaving for good.
In the United States, victims have more institutional support in some places than others. Eight states and six cities outside of those states offer some version of paid time off for employees who experience domestic violence, though most of those policies are far less robust than New Zealand’s. In Washington, D.C., for example, employees are entitled to seven days of “sick and safe leave,” which covers days off for both illness and domestic violence, among other health and safety risks. But across much of the country, if an employer fires a domestic-violence victim for taking time off work—which, Dalton says, happens all the time—the victim has no legal recourse. Forty-two percent of American employers do not offer paid leave for domestic-violence victims, according to a 2017 survey. Another 19 percent said they’re “not sure” if they offer it.
More often than not, domestic violence affects a victim’s employment: An estimated 60 percent of domestic-violence victims lose their jobs as a direct result of their abuse. To better control a victim—in particular, to stop them from leaving—abusers will sometimes try to sabotage their professional life: harassing them on the job, keeping them up all night so they’re exhausted the next day, or tampering with child-care plans, said Joan Meier, a longtime domestic-violence lawyer and a professor at the George Washington University Law School. Meier told me she’s seen abusers threaten the couple’s babysitter, forcing the sitter to quit. “He wants [the victim] to need to use him for child care,” Meier says. “The goal is to mess her up—to mess up her life and make her dependent.” And it works. For many Americans, taking a day or two off work without advance notice will cost them their jobs.
In a domestic violence crisis, “a victim’s job is her lifeline,” said Sonya Passi, the founder and CEO of FreeFrom, a nonprofit dedicated to financially empowering victims of domestic violence. In addition to physical and emotional abuse, 94 percent of victims experience some kind of financial abuse in the relationship, according to one study. Abusers often withhold money from victims, or restrict access to any joint bank accounts—so that when they leave, they leave without savings. The money a victim makes on the job, Passi says, is almost always essential to their ability to successfully build a new life: “Financial freedom is freedom. Without that, you may want to leave, but you know you just can’t.”
Domestic violence is a hard thing to bring up with an employer, particularly at a job the victim feels they could lose at any time. Victims sometimes feel like the abuse they’re experiencing is somehow their own fault—so even if a workplace might be sympathetic to what they’re going through, the employer may not hear about it. Policies like the one passed in New Zealand, Dalton said, send a clear message to victims: “We care about you. The abuse you’re experiencing is real.”
There have been a few legislative efforts to push a paid domestic-violence leave through Congress. The latest, the Healthy Families Act, proposed in the House in the spring of 2017, would have federally mandated seven paid sick days a year, defined to include leave for victims of domestic violence. But in the current Congress, a sweeping paid-leave policy isn’t likely to pass.
Perhaps the strongest argument for codified domestic-violence policies is this: for abusers, they’re intimidating. In New Zealand, Dalton told me, abusers will certainly notice that victims now have 10 days of paid leave. “He’s going to see that there is a potential for her to utilize resources—that she’ll be able to get time off to go to a court date, and get a protective order.” Domestic abusers, Dalton said, will often ask themselves: “Is she working at a place that will support her?” If not, they know they have more control.