Thirty Years After the FMLA, Lawmakers Must Guarantee Paid Leave for People Facing Violence

Vice President Kamala Harris, President Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton walk to a White House event to mark the 30th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act on Feb. 2, 2023. Some Democrats in Congress are calling on Biden to expand access to the FMLA by, in part, including a national 12-week paid family leave system as part of his proposed federal budget. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

When President Clinton made the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) the first bill he signed into law 30 years ago this week, it was a transformative moment—the first time our country’s laws recognized that working people are also family caregivers and human beings who face illness themselves.

While it was an important first step, the FMLA was not enough, then or now. In 2021, nearly half the civilian workforce was not covered by the FMLA ,and millions of workers simply can’t afford to take the unpaid leave the law provides. Further, leave is not available to people subjected to domestic and sexual violence if they need time off to go to court or seek other protections or support, which can cost them their jobs.

That’s why it is so important that every state consider adopting what is known as safe leave—leave for a worker subjected to sexual or domestic violence to seek a restraining order, relocate to safety or take other protective measures—or help a close family member do so. This leave must also be paid. 

The good news is that safe leave is now included in many new leave policies and programs. When Illinois lawmakers passed the Paid Leave for All Workers Act this month, they specified that leave can be used to address an employee’s or family member’s domestic or sexual violence or stalking. When Colorado’s paid leave program begins providing benefits in September, leave will be available to address the impact of domestic violence and/or sexual assault. When Vermont lawmakers introduced a paid family and medical leave bill this month, they included domestic violence as a reason an employee would qualify for paid leave.

But it wasn’t always that way. Not only is the unpaid leave the FMLA provides not available for people to get a restraining order or take other protective steps, many states do not guarantee the access to paid safe leave that helps survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking maintain their economic stability and, with it, the independence they need to break free of abuse.

A new guide from Legal Momentum and Futures Without Violence, supported by the Office on Violence Against Women at the U.S. Department of Justice, looks at state-level workplace protections for survivors. It paints a sobering picture, finding that only about half the states provide some form of leave survivors can use related to the violence they’ve been subjected to. However, not all of that leave is paid and some is limited to leave to attend legal proceedings, which is inadequate because survivors may also need time off to seek safety, relocate and heal.

Sadly, paid safe leave is not the only way state laws are failing people facing abuse. Just a handful of states provide anti-discrimination protections specifically for survivors of sexual and domestic violence.

More than four in five respondents said that their abusive partners disrupted their ability to work. Among those who experienced one or more disruptions, 53 percent actually lost a job because of the abuse.

Only California, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New York and Oregon, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico offer robust statewide workplace protections for survivors of violence. Most states provide only minimal protections. Kentucky and West Virginia provide no workplace protections for survivors of violence at all.

That needs to change. 

Violence is a massive problem in our country, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and many survivors struggle to keep their jobs. In a 2018 survey, more than four in five respondents (83 percent) said that their abusive partners disrupted their ability to work. Among those who experienced one or more disruptions, 53 percent actually lost a job because of the abuse.

Losing a job and the income it brings can make it impossible for people subjected to domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking to extricate themselves from the abuse. Safe leave helps workers keep the jobs they want and need. It prevents abusers from making them more economically dependent by causing them to lose their jobs. That’s why it’s so important to ensure paid safe leave, anti-discrimination protections and reasonable accommodations in the workplace for people facing violence.

A demonstration against male violence on women in Rome, Italy, on Nov. 26, 2022. According to a recent study, more than one in four women in the world have experienced domestic violence from their partner. (Riccardo De Luca / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Every state should adopt workplace protections for survivors, including paid safe leave, this year—and we need that at the federal level too. We also need education to build awareness, training for employers and enforcement to ensure working people can access the leave the law provides.

The good news is that Congress recognized the importance of paid leave when lawmakers included two weeks of paid personal sick leave and up to 10 additional weeks of paid childcare leave in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in response to the pandemic. That coverage has long since expired, but it set the stage for further progress. 

Now, as we continue to face the shadow pandemic of domestic and sexual violence, we need lawmakers at the federal and state levels to provide safe leave—once and for all.

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About and

Kiersten Stewart is director of public policy and advocacy at Futures Without Violence.
Jennifer Becker is legal director at Legal Momentum—The Women's Legal Defense & Education Fund.