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The #MeToo Workplace Policy That No One Is Talking About

Paid leave should cover abused women, too.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty

It’s been a year since the New York Times and New Yorker published their bombshell articles outlining how Harvey Weinstein had sexually harassed and assaulted women for three decades. Since then, the #MeToo movement has turned millions of women into the streets, toppled prominent men in Hollywood, media, politics, and Silicon Valley, and sparked a long overdue discussion about sexual abuse, especially in the workplace. 

Meanwhile, the Democrats have moved left on issues from the minimum wage to college tuition, health care, and job guarantees. But perhaps surprisingly, there has been no such shift toward expanding the social safety net for victims of sexual harassment or domestic abuse. Some Democratic candidates have been discussing #MeToo on the campaign trail: In Texas, House candidate MJ Hegar revealed that she was a survivor of domestic violence in her viral campaign ad “Doors”;  Anna Eskamani, who is running for a seat in Florida’s state house, spoke about being sexually harassed in her workplace; and Rachel Crooks won a seat in the Ohio state legislature in May after she publicly accused Donald Trump of forcibly kissing her in an elevator in 2005. But discussions of what they would do, if elected, to change workplace and domestic abuse policies for the better are less common. 

One of these solutions is simple: paid sick and safe days for survivors of domestic abuse. The policy has been around since 2005, and in other countries, it has been growing increasingly popular. Over the summer, New Zealand passed a law that grants ten days paid leave to survivors of domestic violence—time to flee their abuser and find housing, medical care, and legal assistance. Some states have passed similar laws. Currently, 33 provide some type of unemployment assistance to victims of domestic or sexual abuse, and ten offer mandatory paid sick days. “It’s spreading like wildfire,” said Marium Durrani, a senior policy attorney at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “A lot more are following suit.” 

There are prototypes of federal bills making their way through Congress now, but they’ve been mired in congressional gridlock. Last November, a month after the Weinstein allegations broke, Washington Senator Patty Murray reintroduced her Security and Financial Empowerment (SAFE) Act to Congress. If passed, it would allow survivors to take up to 30 days off work to access the support they need, as well as protect victims from being fired if they are harassed at work. Meanwhile, a more general bill, The Healthy Families Act, would guarantee up to seven days of paid sick leave for all working families. Representative Rosa DeLauro introduced it in the House in March of last year.

These bills aren’t just good policy. They’re good politics. With President Trump cutting already limited funds for survivors, they would help Democrats draw contrasts between themselves and the administration. And with the framework for paid sick days already in place in some states, the legislation could be easier to pass than other domestic violence bills—especially if the Democrats, as expected, take back the House in November.

One in four women in the United States face some form of domestic abuse in their lifetimes, whether it’s physical, emotional, psychological, or sexual. This comes with an economic cost. Abusers often delay or prevent their partners from getting to work. “This is a classic example of power and control,” said Qudsia Raja, the policy director at The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The abuser will “try to manipulate any form of support the survivor has, and obviously your job is a big form of support.”

In other cases, women are harassed when they arrive at work—and when they report the abuse, according to a recent survey by the Maine Department of Labor, 60 percent either quit or are fired. In the United States alone, victims of abuse lose eight million paid days of work each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s roughly 32,000 full-time jobs that employers aren’t filling, creating an unpredictable workforce rife with absenteeism and employee turnover. Even when victims do turn up to work, they are less motivated and demoralized, which stunts their advancement. 

But despite the magnitude of the problem, it’s hard to pass legislation that would help fix the issue. For one, domestic abuse has long been considered a private issue rather than a public one. It was only around 1994—when Congress finally passed the Violence Against Women Act, which marked the first comprehensive federal legislation protecting and preventing women from rape and battery—that domestic abuse was first considered a human rights issue, rather than something that happened in private, behind closed doors.

Still, domestic violence remains notoriously underreported. The Bureau of Justice Statistics had found that serious domestic violence was 31 percent more likely to go unreported to law enforcement for fear of reprisal—either from their partner, or on occasion, even from the government, which, in jurisdictions that have nuisance ordinances, actually punishes women who call 911 too many times.

From a legislative perspective, it’s hard to prevent women from being penalized for reporting abuse: Each state has different laws, and employers are given wide latitude to decide when and if to fire someone (domestic violence is not a protected class of employment, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), so if an abuser does call or turn up at the workplace of their victim and cause a disturbance, the employee is left vulnerable. And even if Congress were to pass a law to prohibit discrimination based on an abuser’s behavior towards a victim, how would they enforce it? 

A policy that gives victims of domestic violence access to paid sick days, on the other hand, would be much easier to implement. Today, more than 40 percent of private sector workers in the United States have no access to paid sick days—a problem that persists because of aggressive business lobbing and the weakening of labor unions. Organizations like the National Federation of Independent Business and the Chamber of Commerce have consistently resisted paid leave policies, arguing that they’re expensive and that it should be left up to a company to decide how much is offered. 

This means that women who are financially dependent are often trapped in abusive relationships because they can’t take the time off work to flee their abusers or pursue them in court. “If you miss your court hearing, then you don’t get your protective order,” said Durrani, who, before she joined the National Network to End Domestic Violence, was a lawyer representing victims of domestic violence in court. “Or you miss your job and your employer finds grounds to terminate you, and you probably don’t have resources to combat that. Beyond the physical and emotional implications of abuse, there are these long reaching ramifications.” Murray’s bill, and others like it, are a remedy for this. 

One of the main conservative concerns about legislation like Murray’s SAFE Act is the cost: When a similar bill was introduced in Maryland, the National Federation of Independent Business, a conservative group funded by the Koch Brothers, argued that the legislation—The Healthy Working Family Act—could decrease output by over $1.5 billion by 2027. “This would lead to reduced profitability, lost sales and production, and lost jobs,” wrote Senior Data Analyst Michael Chow in a February 2017 report for the NFIB. 

But that’s not the full story. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in 1995 that violence against women costs American companies $727.8 million in lost productivity each year—more than enough to make up the shortfall that Murray’s SAFE Act would produce. By allowing women to pursue safety without sacrificing a paycheck or their job, paid sick and safe days keep women in the workforce, which helps employers tap into a talent pool that is currently underused. Moreover, the Center for American Progress has found that when states passed similar paid family and medical leave laws, small business actually improved their profitability: their workers were more productive, their recruitment more effective, and their employees stayed at the company longer, too.

“We view this as making sure that workplaces implement policies so everyone can equally thrive,” said Sarah Gonzalez Bocinski, a program manager at Futures Without Violence, a nonprofit that works to end domestic and sexual violence. “Victims should not have to chose between job security and their own safety. It’s really a terrible choice that individuals have to make, especially for those in the lowest income jobs.”

For Democrats in Congress, aligning themselves with such legislation is smart from a strategic standpoint, as well. For one, it would help them set themselves apart from the president, who has not only stood by accused abusers but also ordered officers to reject the asylum applications of people who claim to be victims of domestic or gang violence. The bill also has the dual benefit of protecting both workers and businesses, at least in the long run. As the Democrats seek a message that sticks, these are just the kinds of policies they need more of, setting themselves up as the party of workers once more.

#MeToo “has created an opportunity where employers are reflecting on their own policies, particularly around sexual harassment,” Bocinski said. Now, it’s time for Democrats to “talk more broadly about a range of gender based violence and how [it] can manifest [itself] in the workplace.”