I am a manager at a mid-size company in Florida. An employee just asked for time off so that she can help her sister, who lives with her, deal with issues related to abusive behavior by the sister’s boyfriend. We have a leave policy in compliance with the Family and Medical Leave Act, but this does not look like a typical FMLA-covered request. What are our obligations here? We are seeking to expand into Maine, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey, and we want to set the stage for good policy going forward.
—Sympathetic in Sweetwater
Dear Sympathetic: Your question is timely, as October is Domestic Violence Awareness month, and time off relating to domestic violence is a complex area of law.
One in four women and nearly one in ten men report experiencing domestic violence. Domestic abuse has long been perceived as a personal issue that employers need not address. In recent years, however, there has been a growing recognition that domestic violence carries serious consequences that spill over into the workplace. Perpetrators often threaten or attack their victims at work, compromising the safety of the survivors as well as their co-workers. Lost productivity, including through missed workdays, is another effect. Twenty-one percent of full-time employed adults report they were victims of domestic violence, and sixty-four percent of them say their work performance has been impacted significantly. The annual cost of lost productivity due to domestic violence is estimated at $727.8 million, with over 7.9 million paid workdays lost per year. The inescapable conclusion is that domestic violence adversely affects the health, safety, and productivity of a sizeable portion of the workforce.
As a result, more and more legislatures and employers, in the U.S. and abroad, have begun to enact laws and policies to provide benefits and protections to victims of domestic violence. Various parts of the U.S. have enacted laws that provide employees leave to address domestic violence, such as to attend court hearings, obtain restraining orders, seek counseling, or avail themselves of other victims’ services. Sometimes these laws provide leave for employees who are assisting members of their family or household with abuse-related issues. In addition, some of the laws extend beyond leaves of absence, requiring that employers provide other types of accommodations to victims of domestic violence. While the passage of domestic violence-related employment laws is a continuing trend, the state and local laws differ, and there is no federal, one-size-fits-all approach.
The bottom line: you are not alone in wondering where family members’ domestic violence-related issues fit among the complex patchwork of employment laws. We’ll walk you through your obligations to your employee whose sister is in an abusive situation. Because you are considering expanding your business beyond Florida and into various states in the Northeast, we will also highlight the relevant leave laws in these other jurisdictions.
National Leave Coverage
You are right to start with the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in considering your employee’s request for time off. The FMLA applies if you have at least 50 employees within 75 miles of the employee’s worksite. The FMLA does not address domestic violence directly, but it allows unpaid time off for employees to tend to their own serious illness or medical condition or that of an immediate family member. It is possible that domestic violence-related illnesses or injuries could trigger an entitlement to FMLA leave. However, the statute’s definition of immediate family extends only to spouses, parents, and children, not to siblings. Therefore, the employee’s request for leave to help her sister would not qualify for FMLA leave.
Relevant State and Local Leave Laws in Florida
As mentioned above, while the FMLA does not explicitly address domestic violence, at least 20 states and localities have enacted laws to fill the gap. Florida is one such state. The Florida law applies to employers with 50 or more employees and to an employee who has been employed by the employer for three or more months. Assuming these threshold requirements are met, your employee is eligible to take up to three working days of leave (paid or unpaid) in any 12-month period if she or a family or household member is a victim of domestic violence or sexual violence. As a blood relative and someone living with your employee, the employee’s sister falls under the law’s definition of “family” and “household member.”
The leave can be used to secure the victim’s home from the perpetrator, seek new housing to escape the perpetrator, obtain treatment for psychological or medical issues, seek an injunction for protection, obtain legal assistance or social services, or prepare for court proceedings relating to the act of domestic violence. If your employee is helping her sister with any of these objectives, she is using the time off for an authorized purpose.
The law requires that the employee provide you with advance notice of the absence and sufficient documentation of the act of domestic violence, except in cases of imminent danger to the employee or family member’s health or safety. In addition, the employee is required to exhaust sick leave, annual leave, and vacation time before taking this type of leave, unless you, as the employer, waive that provision.
Because you are located in Miami-Dade County, you should also be aware of the local family leave law, which explicitly allows absences for accessing domestic violence services or medical treatment relating to domestic violence. The local provision, like the state law, applies to employers with 50 or more employees. Employees are eligible if they have worked at least 90 days. Significantly, the local measure provides up to 30 work days of unpaid time off in a 12-month period. The ordinance covers leave for the employee or the employee’s dependent children, only, so it would not apply to the employee in question, who seeks leave to assist a sibling.
Confidentiality and anti-retaliation are key concepts of the Florida and Miami-Dade laws and most other domestic violence-related laws. Generally speaking, information relating to the employee’s domestic violence-related leave must be kept confidential. It is unlawful for employers to retaliate against employees for exercising their rights under the domestic violence leave law, such as through discharge, demotion, suspension, or other forms of discrimination.
State and Local Domestic Violence Leave Laws Vary
In addition to Florida, several other states and localities provide leave to victims of crimes, including domestic violence. A few states have expansive paid leave laws that cover time off for domestic violence-related situations. Some have both, and these provisions may or may not overlap. As a result, employers should evaluate all leave requests carefully and assess whether the employer, individual employee, and particular situation are covered under one or more leave laws in that jurisdiction.
For now, because you mention that you might be expanding your business into Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey, we’ll highlight the key sections of the laws in those jurisdictions.
Maine. Regardless of the size of your future operation in Maine, you must provide unpaid leave to an employee who is a victim of domestic violence or has a child, parent or spouse who is. Employees can take “reasonable and necessary” time off to attend court, seek medical treatment, or to pursue other services to handle domestic violence issues for themselves or an immediate family member without retaliation. The leave is unpaid unless you have provided other paid sick leave time or personal time that the employee can use.
Massachusetts. In Massachusetts, there are several laws that may require you to provide leave for employees facing domestic violence.
First, the Massachusetts domestic violence leave law applies to employers with 50 or more employees and provides leave when the employee or his or her “family member” is the victim of abusive behavior. Employees can take up to 15 days off – paid or unpaid – in a 12-month period for several different purposes related to the abusive behavior.
Second, Massachusetts’ earned sick leave law applies to all employers, and the accrued sick leave may be used to address the psychological, physical or legal effects of domestic abuse committed against the employee or the employee’s child. For companies with 11 or more employees, the leave is paid.
Third, and more broadly, Massachusetts offers time off to crime victims who need to appear as witnesses in criminal proceedings. There is no explicit requirement that such leave be paid.
New York. Several laws in New York relate to domestic violence. Notably, the state of New York recently amended its Human Rights Law to prohibit employers from discriminating against employees who are victims of domestic violence, and to require employers to provide reasonable accommodations to such employees. The law goes into effect on November 18, 2019.
Under the new law, a “reasonable accommodation” is a reasonable amount of time off to engage in the following activities related to domestic violence: seeking medical attention or psychological counseling, including for a child who is a victim of domestic violence; participating in safety planning; obtaining legal services, assisting in the prosecution of the offense, or appearing in court; and obtaining social services. Any absence that cannot be charged against available paid time off may be treated as unpaid leave. Employers do not need to provide such an accommodation if the absence would impose an undue hardship. This analysis looks at several factors, like the overall size of the business versus the number of employees and the type of operation, among others.
Prior to this amendment, New York employees were entitled to unpaid time off to participate in legal proceedings as witnesses or to seek an order of protection.
Additionally, both New York City and Westchester County have laws relevant to domestic violence matters:
- The New York City Earned Safe and Sick Time Act permits eligible employees to use their accrued leave time for safe time purposes. Employers with five or more employees must provide paid leave, while smaller employers may provide unpaid leave. Employees dealing with “family offense matters,” sexual offenses, stalking, or human trafficking may take leave time to obtain social services, participate in safety planning, meet with attorneys, enroll children in a new school, or take other actions necessary to restore or protect the health or safety of the employee or a family member, including an individual whose association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship.
- The New York City Human Rights Law requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations—which may include unpaid leave time—to employees who are victims of domestic violence. Employers must engage in a cooperative dialogue with employees requesting accommodation and may not discriminate against such individuals.
- As in New York City, employers in Westchester County must provide reasonable accommodations for employees dealing with domestic violence issues, including time off. In addition, the new Safe Time Leave Law in Westchester County takes effect on October 30, 2019. That law requires all employers in the county to provide up to 40 hours of paid leave time in any year for safe time purposes. The Westchester County provision, however, does not extend leave for the purpose of assisting family members experiencing domestic violence.
New Jersey. Further down the coast, New Jersey has a comprehensive domestic violence leave law that applies to employers with 25 or more employees. The New Jersey Security and Financial Empowerment (SAFE) Act obligates employers to provide employees with up to 20 days of unpaid leave in a 12-month period for various sick time purposes, for themselves or for family members. The definition of “family member” under the SAFE Act is expansive and includes a grandparent, grandchild, parent-in-law, or “or any other individual related by blood to the employee, and any other individual that the employee shows to have a close association with the employee which is the equivalent of a family relationship.” Employers are not required to compensate employees for this time, although employees may be eligible to elect paid benefits under other company policies or statutes, including the New Jersey Temporary Benefits Disability Law.
New Jersey also has a statewide paid sick and safe time statute, which covers all private employers. Eligible employees may use their accrued leave time to handle the effects of domestic violence, including medical attention, counseling, relocation, or legal services.
Other Steps Employers Can Consider Taking to Help Employees Affected by Domestic Violence
Finally, you may be wondering what else you can do to assist individuals in your workforce who are affected by domestic violence. While the answer to that question is worthy of a separate post, for starters, employers can implement an employment policy to address accommodations available to employees affected by domestic violence. Knowing that job-protected leave is available in a time of crisis can go a long way in promoting survivors’ well-being and financial security.
In addition to circulating a policy concerning time off to deal with domestic violence-related issues, if you become aware that an employee is a victim of domestic violence, you can consider the following options:
- disseminate information on available resources, such as local domestic violence agencies;
- offer to make changes to the work environment to help make the employee safer from threats of abuse by the perpetrator, e.g., change the employee’s work phone number, remove their name and number from automated phone messages and directories, and install caller ID;
- adopt a workplace safety policy that lays out recommended responses if certain violent behaviors or threats are perceived in the workplace; and
- train management and staff on the effects of domestic violence on the workplace, how to recognize signs that a colleague may be experiencing domestic violence, and recommended steps regarding what to do or not do in an attempt to help the colleague in such circumstances.
Given the applicable laws in Sweetwater related to domestic violence and the information you have provided, your employee may be entitled to up to three days of leave to help her sibling, if she has exhausted her other available leave time. Depending on the various leave policies at your company, you may elect to provide pay for this type of leave, or you can ask the employee to use vacation time if she wishes to be paid during her leave. As her employer, Sympathetic in Sweetwater, you are allowed to ask for reasonable advance notice of the absence—if it would not endanger the employee or her sister—and to require some sort of documentation to substantiate the reason for the absence. Please remember that taking any negative employment action in response to the employee’s use of this leave time, like demotion, reduced hours, or reduced benefits, would be strictly prohibited under Florida law.
Other states and cities have more generous leave laws. Each of these laws differs when it comes to the length of leave, the authorized reasons for leave, the amount and type of notice employees must provide, whether the leave is paid or unpaid, whether the leave can run concurrently with other types of leave, the existence of policy and posting requirements, and what types of documentation (if any) can be requested from the employee to corroborate the reason for the leave. As your company considers expanding into new territories, be sure to consult the specific details of laws in each jurisdiction to ensure compliance.