Missouri Businesses Now Must Grant Unpaid Leave For Survivors Of Domestic Or Sexual Violence
Under a new state law, Missouri joins dozens of other states in requiring that employers provide unpaid leave to survivors of domestic or sexual violence who want to seek help.
The law, which went into effect late last month, applies to businesses with more than 20 workers. Depending on size, companies must offer one or two regular working weeks of unpaid time off per year for medical or mental health treatment, legal assistance or other services.
The Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence has been pushing for the law for nearly a decade.
Public Policy Director Jennifer Carter Dochler said it’s a huge win for survivors and their family members, who can also request time off while retaining their position and benefits. For example, she said that allows parents of child abuse survivors to seek services.
“If somebody wants to meet with an attorney, if somebody wants to meet with a private counselor, if someone needs to relocate — that’s an eligible item to request unpaid leave,” she said.
Carter Dochler said the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and other groups previously opposed the law. But she said a few key compromises in this version pushed their stance to neutral. Those compromises included setting cutoffs for the size of business the law would apply to and the number of days that must be provided, Carter Dochler said.
Employees who wish to request the time off could be asked to provide documentation, such as records from an attorney or medical professional. That information must be kept confidential by employers. Employees must also give 48 hours' notice, except in the case of an emergency.
The law also requires employers to provide reasonable safety accommodations. Carter Dochler said that could mean adjusting work schedules, supplying a new phone or updating locks.
“That will be incredibly helpful for survivors when the person who has been abusing them knows where they work,” she said.
The Missouri Department of Labor emailed employers at the end of August notifying them of a new required workplace notice, which details employees' rights under the new law. Employers are required to disseminate that poster to employees by Oct. 27, and new employees must be notified of it when they start working.
Jessica Liss, an employment attorney and St. Louis office managing partner at the firm Jackson Lewis, said businesses should prepare for requests.
“I would recommend that employers start planning for revisions to their handbooks and providing some training and education to frontline managers and human resources so they recognize the circumstances that are going to trigger these leave rights,” she said.
Liss said preparation would help businesses avoid disputes with employees over whether they provided the proper accommodations. She said that the law offers critical support for employees, and that it shouldn’t create many disruptions for a business because of the brief, unpaid time allotted.
Organizations that support those dealing with domestic and sexual violence are also paying close attention to the new law so they can help educate clients on their options.
Katie Wessling, managing attorney of the Crime Victim Center in St. Louis, said she anticipates her organization may need to step in to help clients advocate for their rights as businesses become aware of the new law and work to implement new policies.
“I think it will be a lot of education, advocacy, in some cases probably some proactive work with employers to make sure that they understand what it is they're supposed to be doing,” she said.
Wessling said the law will provide immediate relief for those with the resources to afford unpaid time off. But she anticipates a slower uptick for low-wage workers.
“Unless their situation is so bad that they really don't have much choice — maybe they're hospitalized for four days. But the good thing is that now even though they didn't get paid, they have a job to go back to,” she said.
Wessling said the law is a step in the right direction, but she wants to see more done to help those working at establishments with fewer than 20 employees, who aren’t covered by the law.
Domestic violence has surged during the coronavirus pandemic.
Vithya Murugan, an assistant professor of social work at St. Louis University who studies the pandemic’s impact on domestic abuse survivors, said the law is a needed first step. But she added that two weeks may not be enough time and that not everyone in need will be able to take advantage of the new law.
“What does this law mean for survivors who are economically vulnerable, who might not be able to afford to take unpaid time off?” she asked in an email.
Murugan said employer training will be critical to making sure survivors who can afford to take unpaid time feel comfortable and supported enough to do so.
“Domestic violence agencies could help employers understand the dynamics of domestic violence and assist employers with the implementation and rollout of this law to ensure that its benefits are accessible to as many survivors as possible,” she said.
If you need help, call the Crime Victim Center at 314-652-3623, Women's Safe House at 314-772-4535 or Safe Connections at 314-531-2003. Metro East residents can contact the Violence Prevention Center in Belleville at 618-235-0892.
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