Eric Gay/AP/File
An advocate works in a cubicle at the National Domestic Violence Hotline center's new facility in Austin, Texas. From Canada to Australia, labor unions have helped to build support for paid leave for domestic-violence victims, which can help them escape abusive relationships.

In Canada, a law says workplace has role in fighting domestic violence

Supporters say the benefit can ease the economic barriers to escaping abusive situations, while increasing transparency for an issue long treated as private. A law has been passed in Manitoba, and one is under consideration in Ontario. 

Like her mother, Michelle Gawronsky spent several years in an abusive marriage. One night, after an especially brutal fight, she packed up her four young children and drove to her mother’s house in Winnipeg, Manitoba. 

“I just looked at my kids and said they should not be going through this, especially not my daughters,” she recalls. 

Also like her mother, the late Kathleen St. Godard, Ms. Gawronsky escaped her marriage safely and found support within her community. But her road was easier, and a key difference was how her employer treated her. 

She explains that when Ms. St. Godard left her home and moved her children to a women’s shelter in the late 1980s, she asked for time off from her job as a teaching aide so she could find safer, more permanent housing. She was subsequently fired and spent 18 months living on social assistance.  

Years later, Gawronsky’s boss gave her a week of paid time off so she could move and go to court to get a restraining order. She continued work as a health care aide and, with her employer’s support, sought out family counseling and eventually put her marriage back together.

Now, as president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union, Grawonsky is part of a movement of provincial legislators and unions, in Canada and abroad,  advocating for measures to guarantee paid leave and job security for victims of domestic violence. If they succeed, the new rules would be a groundbreaking addition to resources already in place to help such victims. 

Proponents argue that such benefits help increase transparency around what has long been treated as a private issue. Furthermore, they say, surer economic footing clears away a major obstacle for people trying to move on from abusive situations. 

“It will give [the victim] time to make the move, to get things together and assess what to do next,” says Anuradha Dugal, director of violence prevention for the Canadian Women’s Foundation, a lobby group that helps raise funds for women’s shelters. “While she’s doing that, she needs to know she has a job to go back to,” she says.

An economic problem

Since the first Canadian women’s shelter opened in Toronto in 1973, activists here have made significant strides toward establishing resources for victims of domestic abuse. Women’s shelters across the country are publicly funded, police forces are trained to press charges and, Ms. Dugal says, women are less often blamed for the violence than they were in previous decades. 

Even so, women still face enormous barriers to leaving an abusive relationship. Among the most important is uncertainty over whether they will be able to provide for themselves and their children. According to a 2014 survey by the Washington-based National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), lower incomes, and higher rates of food and housing insecurity, are associated with higher incidences of abuse for both men and women. One in 10 women and 1 in 25 men who have experienced domestic abuse reported having missed school or work as a result. Despite improvements, a little over half of victims who need transitional housing in the United States can’t get it, according to NNEDV. 

Concerns about financial stability are often borne out. A separate 2014 survey of more than 8,000 Canadian workers, sponsored by the Canadian Labour Congress, found 34 percent of respondents reporting that they had been abused by their intimate partners, and that nearly 9 percent of those had been fired because of it. A 2009 survey estimated that victims of domestic violence lose a combined  $20 million a year in wages. 

“What we’re trying to establish is, this is a specific issue and it should be recognized as such,” says Barb MacQuarrie, the CLC survey’s architect and the community director of the Centre for Education on Violence Against Women and Children at the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario. “Instead of being a problem that an individual needs to be ashamed of, it becomes a problem for the workplace to solve.”

Gawronsky says that financial worries stopped her mother from leaving her marriage until it was almost too late. Their home in rural Manitoba was filled with guns and at times, St. Godard’s husband threatened her and their children at gunpoint. She tried to leave twice before leaving for good, but returned both times because of concerns about how she would support herself if she lost her job. 

Dugal of the Canadian Women's Foundation says that St. Godard’s experience is all too common. 

“Many women stare at this and say ‘how can it be a better choice for me, to put my child in poverty rather than stay with this partner and try to make things work?’ ” says Dugal.

Gawronsky’s own boss, meanwhile, “put me on vacation and never said anything to anybody.” She took four days and used the time to hire a lawyer and go to court to get a restraining order that forced her husband to move out of their home and allowed her and her children to move back in. She returned to work the next week. 

As things settled down, she got time off for family counseling. She and her husband eventually reconciled and were happily married until he passed away in 2009.  

“Without that time I would have taken short cuts, and that’s what a lot of women do because they needed to get back to work and then the violent person can very quickly come in and take control of your life again,” she says.

Should it be a workplace issue?

Several Canadian lawmakers and labor unions have taken up the cause. The province of Manitoba passed a law last year that offers eligible victims of domestic abuse up to five days of paid leave and up to 17 weeks of unpaid leave per year to deal with the impact of abuse. It also protects workers’ positions while on such leave.  A similar law is pending in the province of Ontario, and paid domestic-violence leave is now a standard demand in contract negotiations led by trade unions such as the United Steelworkers of Canada.

Getting employers on board has proven a challenge, however. Members of the business community in Manitoba objected to the legislation, saying they’re concerned about the cost. 

“Why domestic violence and not any other reason that you have to miss work? There’s many perfectly valid reasons for missing work and we don’t make the employer pay for those,” says William Gardner, a lawyer and head of the Manitoba Employers’ Council, which represents 23,000 employers in Manitoba. 

Adriane Paavo, head of education and equality for United Steelworkers Canada, says the biggest barrier is convincing businesses that domestic abuse should be a workplace issue at all. McQuarrie’s 2014 research, however, makes a strong case that it is. Fifty-four percent of abuse victims surveyed said the violence followed them to work, most commonly in the form of abusive phone calls or text messages and stalking or harassment near the workplace. About 82 percent said trouble at home negatively affected their performance because they were either distracted, tired, or unable to concentrate. 

“Because the majority of victims are women, it’s not something we’ve talked about enough or taken seriously enough,” Ms. Paavo says. “There is this notion that domestic abuse is a private matter.” 

Gardner, from the Manitoba Employers’ Council,  argues that most workplaces are willing to support an employee who is suffering from domestic violence if they know about it, and he’s concerned employees will take advantage of the time even if they don’t really need it. Furthermore, he says, legislation could have unintended consequences, such as making it harder for women to get work.  

But proponents of the legislation hold up Australia, where roughly 2 million employees have access to paid domestic-violence leave, as a success story. Unions there began negotiating domestic-violence leave into worker contracts beginning in 2011. And early data show that so far, employees take less time than they are entitled to – an average of two or three days off to deal with legal and medical concerns, move, or take steps to improve their safety, according to a survey commissioned by the Australian Council of Trade Unions. 

“If we agree that [domestic violence] is a societal problem, not an individual problem, then we have to attack it on all fronts,” says Dugal from the Canadian Women’s Foundation. “This will help to break down the silence and it will, hopefully, get around the impoverishment of domestic violence for many women.” 

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