Financial Interests Get in the Way of Meaningful Rights for Domestic Violence Victims

A new Massachusetts bill regarding victims of domestic violence has recently passed the State Senate, and is headed to the House. If approved, the bill would guarantee workers who are also victims of intimate partner violence some protections from their employers:

The approved bill would require businesses to give employees who are victims of domestic violence up to 15 days off work, paid or unpaid, if they are trying to get out of a violent situation or seeking medical or legal help.

Workers would have to use up all of their sick days and vacation days first.

The bill would require victims to offer some kind of proof of their status, such as a restraining order, police report or medical documentation. Employers would have to keep that information private. The bill would exempt smaller businesses with fewer than 50 workers.

The bill passed on a 36-0 vote. It now heads to the House.

This bill is certainly better than nothing. And I assure you, I’d love to simply write about good news and not feel the need to turn out a critique. I’m also happy that victims advocates are apparently pleased.

But at the same time, I find it very difficult to not argue that the bill doesn’t go nearly far enough. Indeed, I say that even in a relatively liberal state like MA, any workers rights bill that can get unanimous support from a legislature is almost guaranteed to be extremely limited in scope. Failing to ensure that leave for reasons of domestic violence is paid, forcing employees to use up all of their sick and vacation days before taking additional time, and requiring paper documentation of abuse is not just insufficient, it’s cruel.

Firstly, a large part of the reason why legislation like this would be important at all is because so many victims of abuse literally cannot afford to leave their abusers. They can’t afford it because their abuser financially supports them. They can’t afford it because they’re afraid of losing their jobs. Or they can’t afford it because their financial situation is so precarious that taking any unpaid time off — often necessary in terms of relocating, temporarily going into hiding, and more — is impossible to do while also managing to make ends meet. This bill already excludes businesses with 50 employees or less from any responsibility or even co-responsibility with the state government — something I consider to be a huge mistake, as of 2006 over 33 million U.S. employees (or almost 30% of the total workforce) worked for such businesses (pdf). And it also fails to require that affected employers be financially accountable to their workers.

Secondly, far too many Americans don’t even have sick days or vacation days. Those who are so lucky often desperately need those days. They provide a vital fallback in case of personal illness, sick children, or other family emergencies — to say nothing of my anti-capitalist belief that rest is a fundamental human right. In supposedly providing on important safety net, another one is yanked away.

But the requirement of “proof” is the most callous and dangerous of all. The fact of the matter is that many and quite possibly most victims of intimate partner violence have no documentation. They have not called police for fear of retaliation from their abusers. They have not gone to the hospital for similar reasons. And while one can easily suggest that victims do these things once they have left their abusers, the truth is sobering but simple: the period after a victim has left her abuser is the period during which she is in the most danger of extreme violence. And restraining orders not only require the risk of going to the police, but are also notoriously unenforced. Additionally, while supposedly “required” to keep such documentation confidential, there’s no mention of how that confidentiality is going to be enforced among employers.

And that’s not even to touch on those who would remain vulnerable under this legislation even under better circumstances — such as undocumented immigrants who have no legal rights as workers, and low-wage workers who businesses are not afraid to fire, due to a low likelihood of being sued.

Part of the problem, it seems, is not just legislators’ general reluctance to anger business owners, but also the fact that businesses were directly involved in the drafting of the legislation:

John Regan, executive vice president for Associated Industries of Massachusetts, said the group agrees more needs to be done to help victims of domestic violence. He said the group worked with advocates to craft legislation that could win the backing of business leaders.

Regan said the legislation also has protections for business owners, including leaving it up to employers to decide whether to offer paid or unpaid leaves of absence. Requiring proof of abuse will help dissuade workers from taking advantage of the proposed law, he said.

“We wanted to make sure that the incidents for which any leave would be taken were very clearly spelled out,” he said.

Yes, Mr. Regan, surely employees are just lining up around the block to claim to be the victims of one of the most stigmatized crimes out there, all for the sake of likely unpaid leave. Thank god you plugged that hole. Undoubtedly, one’s actual motivations couldn’t possibly be limiting the number of genuine victims who will be able to use a policy that was supposedly designed for them.

A second bill intended to protect domestic violence victims has seemingly not involved the money-makers nearly as closely, and has thus stalled. This bill would protect the rights of victims of abuse as renters of property, and many rental property owners are displeased:

The Senate postponed until May 20 debate on a second bill that would allow victims of domestic violence to break a lease without facing a penalty if they needed to flee an abusive household.

The bill also would prohibit landlords from ending a lease, failing to renew a lease or refusing to enter into a new lease based solely on a person’s status as a victim of domestic violence.

Landlords still would be able to evict tenants based on other lawful grounds, such as failure to pay rent.

The legislation ran into opposition from rental property owners who said the bill would tie their hands and leave them vulnerable to legal action from other tenants in their buildings.

Skip Schloming, executive director of the Small Property Owners Association, said landlords don’t have a problem with allowing victims of domestic violence to break a lease.

But he said landlords are worried about being unable to evict a household where there is domestic violence – especially if that violence results in persistent, loud arguments that disturb the peace of other tenants.

I have to say in very plain terms, I find this entire thing to be rather gross. The truth is that, no, as someone living in an apartment, I wouldn’t want neighbors whose loud arguments I could constantly hear. Having your peace and quiet disturbed is not fun — and having it disturbed in such a brutal and potentially traumatizing way is even worse. But there’s a big difference between this situation and one where a neighbor plays their stereo too loudly — and that difference is the issue of safety.

Kicking such tenants out of their home doesn’t necessarily loosen the abuser’s grasp from his or her victim. In fact, a time of upheaval can only strengthen those ties. Stressful situations often also lead to even worse abuse, and can easily put the abused party in more danger. The fact is that as much as I love my peace and quiet — and I assure that as much as anyone you’ll ever meet, I do — my right to peace and quiet is not worth more than another person’s right to housing and the largest amount of safety currently available to them. I believe the same is true regarding a landlord’s profit.

Unfortunately, I’m in the minority, there. And the delay on the vote over the bill is apparently to allow time for a “compromise” with property owners. Capitalism, and especially capitalist systems like the one in the U.S. that operate under little regulation, prizes money and the individual right to economic success above all else — above safety, above food and shelter for those whom capitalism has not benefited, and most certainly above social justice in general. And in continuing a model that values profit before people, businesses before individual constituents, the powerful above the most vulnerable, options for victims of domestic violence are always, always going to be limited.

0 thoughts on “Financial Interests Get in the Way of Meaningful Rights for Domestic Violence Victims

  1. Pingback: The Wholestyle Network » Blog Archive » Bills for Protection of Domestic Abuse Victims Fall Short

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