Employment & Labour

Domestic abuse victims entitled to workplace leaves

By Paul Russell, AdvocateDaily.com Contributor

Provincially regulated employers in Ontario must accommodate employees who request time off due to the domestic or sexual violence they are experiencing at home, Toronto employment lawyer Kathryn Marshall tells AdvocateDaily.com.

“If someone is experiencing abuse at home, it’s important that they understand they are entitled to a job-protected leave of absence,” says Marshall, associate with MacDonald & Associates.

She explains that s. 49.7 of Ontario’s Employment Standards Act states that if an employee or their child experiences domestic or sexual violence, the employee is entitled to up to 10 consecutive days of leave.

In some situations, Marshall says the period could be lengthened to up to 15 weeks, although the employee will only be paid for the first five days of leave in a calendar year.

“It is incredibly difficult for victims of domestic abuse to speak out and to actually get up the courage to tell their employer what's happening,” Marshall says.

“That’s why employers should be as supportive as possible as ultimately they want their employees to be safe, and to resolve their challenges so they can continue to thrive,” she says.

Provinces such as Saskatchewan and New Brunswick have brought in similar legislation, Marshall says, and the federal government has amended the Canadian Labour Code to provide the same type of leave for federally regulated employees.

“Governments in Canada, provincially and federally, have recognized that domestic and sexual abuse is a real issue for many Canadians,” she says, noting that in 2015, there were more than 90,000 cases of domestic violence reported to police in Canada.

“We know that's just the tip of the iceberg, as the majority of these situations are never reported due to the social stigma around domestic abuse,” Marshall says. “People don't want everyone else knowing what is going on in their homes.”

In some cases, she says the victims are afraid to report the violence because they don’t want their partner going to jail, especially if that person is the breadwinner for the family, or if children are involved.

“People don't tend to get the police involved until the abuse or violence has escalated to a very dangerous point,” Marshall says. “It is often something that people put up with for a long period of time.”

Employers must be prepared to help staff members experiencing domestic violence, she says, starting by making sure they are not in immediate danger and have a safe place to stay.

Firms can also help the person get in touch with trauma centres, shelters and counsellors, Marshall adds.

In the workplace itself, she says steps must be taken to protect the employee from the abuser, especially if they have fled the family home and don’t want contact with their former partner.

“This is really important, as abusive people will often try to access their victims at work since that may the only place they know they can find them,” Marshall says.

There has been “horrific cases in Canada where the abuser has actually shown up the workplace and assaulted his former partner and some co-workers,” she says.

If an employee has separated from an abusive partner, Marshall says people who work in the reception area should be made aware of what that person looks like, so that the police can be contacted if necessary.

Personal schedules and cellphone numbers should never be given out as abusive partners have been known to call into a firm, and pretend to be a client who is interested in getting in contact with the employee, she says.

“The abuser will try to get information as to their ex-partner’s whereabouts,” Marshall says. “Stalking is a common behaviour associated with this kind of abuse.”

To invoke the domestic violence leave, she says employees should approach their boss or an HR staff member to make a request. Employers are entitled to ask for a note from a counsellor or doctor to confirm the employee’s account of their experience, Marshall says.

“These letters don’t have to be detailed, and frankly, some employers might not even ask for it, as they will take the person at their word,” she says.

Since domestic or sexual violence leave is relatively new in Ontario, having been brought in under the former Liberal government, Marshall says many people are unaware of it.

She encourages firms to make sure information about it is included in employee handbooks or through the company’s intranet.

“Generally people aren't sitting around reading the Employment Standards Act, so they may not even be aware of this type of leave,” Marshall says.

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