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More states mandating domestic violence leave

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Momentum may be building on both the state and federal level to enact legislation that will require employers to provide time off to employees who are domestic violence victims, say observers.

But they also note that some employers already grant time off to domestic violence victims that often goes beyond any likely legislative mandates.

Florida became the latest state to enact domestic violence legislation, which went into effect July 1. The law permits employees to take up to three days leave from work in any 12-month period for a variety of activities connected with domestic violence issues, such as seeking an injunction for protection or obtaining medical care or mental health counseling.

Florida joined six other states—California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas and Maine—that give domestic violence victims the right to take time off, although the specifics of their laws vary, according to New York-based Legal Momentum, an advocacy group.

In addition, New York and North Carolina have laws that allow victims to take time off to seek civil protective orders, although they do not address victims' need to take other steps related to the violence, according to Legal Momentum.

Meanwhile, nine other states, plus the District of Columbia, introduced domestic violence leave bills last year that failed to become law, according to Legal Momentum.

On the federal level, in April Sen. Patty Murray, D.-Wash., proposed legislation, The Survivor's Empowerment and Economic Security Act, which would allow domestic violence victims to take leave without penalty to appear in court, seek legal assistance and get help with safety planning. The bill is now in committee. Comparable legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives as well. Two previous attempts to enact such legislation were unsuccessful.

Sue K. Willman, an employment attorney with Spencer Fane Britt & Browne L.L.P. in Kansas City, Mo., who spoke at a hearing on domestic violence as a representative of the Society for Human Resource Management, said SHRM opposes federal legislation in this area "because we already believe that employers provide adequate leave of absence in various forms to employees already, and so there is a real question as to whether there is a need for this."

Ms. Willman, a former domestic violence victim herself, said the chances of the legislation becoming law this year "are pretty slim, because we're going into a presidential election year, and the campaign issues are probably going to be higher priority issues than this one."

However, Lisalyn Jacobs, Legal Momentum's vp for government affairs, said one positive sign is 2005 federal legislation that authorizes appropriations to create a workplace resource center to assist employers in learning how to support employees who are domestic violence victims. The measure was enacted, but has not received funding.

Furthermore, "There are, in Capitol Hill land, always other ways to get part of the job done," which includes adding domestic violence crime victims to provisions of an expanded Family and Medical Leave Act, Ms. Jacobs said.

There is also growing awareness of the issue on the state level, said Ms. Jacobs. For instance, more than half of the states already allow companies to consider paying unemployment insurance benefits to workers who have lost or quit their jobs because of domestic violence.

"I think you really do see an evolution in the way legislators are starting to look at this," said Ms. Jacobs.

The Florida law applies to employers with 50 or more employees and to employees who have been on the job for three or more months. Before receiving the leave, the employee must exhaust all vacation, personal and sick leave unless the employer waives the requirement, the law states. The leave may be taken with or without pay, at the employer's discretion.

Observers say the law has not had a significant impact on employers in the state, many of whom already go beyond its provisions. Patrick M. Muldowney, an Orlando, Fla.-based attorney with Baker & Hostetler L.L.P., said "We're only talking about three days here."

"I think, obviously, most employers want to protect their employees from domestic violence, and want their employees to be able to come to work and not have to be worrying about that kind of issue," he said. "Most employers want to be able to do anything they can to help."

Assisting employees

St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Raymond James Inc., which has about 3,670 Florida-based employees, prior to the law was offering employees 30 days of unpaid leave for issues that includes domestic violence, as well as up to eight free counseling visits under its employee assistance program, said Barbara Galloway, director, human resources, partner group, at the financial services company.

This is something the firm offers "as a company that cares about its people," said Ms. Galloway.

Kelly M. Lonsberry, senior associate administrator, human resources, at the 1,400-employee Watson Clinic L.L.P. in Lakeland, Fla., said even before the legislation, "we helped our employees in that situation and would certainly give them time off that they needed, sometimes more than three days," as well as refer them to the clinic's EAP.

"We've done lots more than this legislation is talking about," said Ms. Lonsberry. "To us, it was not much more than a blip on the radar."