Proposed changes to the Employment Standards Act would let workers take ‘domestic violence leave’

Employees in the Northwest Territories may soon be able to take leave from work if they are experiencing domestic violence.

The territorial government is considering several changes to the Employment Standards Act pertaining to leave, including one that would let employees take “domestic violence leave.” Amendments to the act could be passed on Oct. 1, before the territorial election.

If the changes go through, many employers and employees in the territory will be obligated to offer domestic violence leave.

“The loss of a job or wages can act as a significant barrier to leaving an abusive relationship, which can have obvious negative impacts on the safety and security of individuals,” Pam Coulter, a spokesperson for the territory’s Department of Education, Culture and Employment, said in an email.

Domestic violence can also affect an employee’s job performance, said Coulter.

Federal and territorial government employees, and employees in federally-regulated workplaces such as banks, airlines and telecommunications companies, are not covered by the Employment Standards Act.

Is it leave only if someone leaves a relationship? Are they able to access it multiple times over the course of their employment?– Bree Denning,  executive director of Yellowknife Women’s Society

It appears a domestic violence leave option would not necessarily apply to them.

The CBC asked the territory’s Department of Finance whether the proposed leave options would apply to territorial government workers, but did not get a response before deadline.

The federal government is currently looking at introducing 10 days of domestic violence leave — five paid and five unpaid — into federally-regulated industries.

Coulter said the federal government’s plans to change leave options under the Canada Labour Code “present an opportunity to explore the introduction of domestic violence leave in the N.W.T.”

Domestic violence leave could give employees time to move, or seek legal advice, counselling and other services that are only available during business hours.

But what this leave would look like in the territory remains to be seen.

For example, it’s undecided right now whether it would be paid or unpaid, as well as how many days or weeks could be taken.

Bree Denning, executive director of the Yellowknife Women’s Society, said the leave should be paid, and the time allotted should be flexible.

Women experiencing domestic abuse may, for various reasons, return to their partner multiple times, said Denning.

“Is it leave only if someone leaves a relationship? Are they able to access it multiple times over the course of their employment?” she said.

“Those factors really need to be figured out in order for us to ensure that it’s a policy that actually benefits women.”

Denning said in “extreme circumstances,” the territorial government should offer support to employers so they can continue to pay staff who need to take weeks or months off to separate themselves from abusive situations.

Lyda Fuller, executive director of the YWCA in Yellowknife, said financial independence is a “protective factor” for women experiencing domestic abuse.

“Anything that we can do to help women maintain their employment and maintain that income stream is going to be helpful for that woman and her children,” she said.

Several provinces have brought in domestic violence leave in the last few years, including Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick.

Does it work?

Deena Brock, the provincial co-ordinator for Manitoba Association of Women’s Shelters, said in her province, it’s difficult to gauge whether the leave is being used properly.

“The only way you would be able to find out is to talk to employers directly, which of course would be a breach of [employee] confidentiality,” said Brock.

She said women may be reluctant to ask for the leave out of fear that doing so might jeopardize their job.

While good in theory, said Brock, the leave program isn’t going to stop domestic violence.

“In a lot of ways, it doesn’t really affect the government,” she said.

Anything that we can do to help women maintain their employment and maintain that income stream is going to be helpful.- Lyda Fuller, executive director of Yellowknife’s YWCA

“It’s something they can implement at no cost, or virtually no cost, to them. All the expenses are borne by the employer, so it makes them look good, from the government’s perspective.”

The Union of Northern Workers, which represents territorial government workers, called the leave proposal a “positive step.”

However, said spokesperson Jennifer Wright, “we would hope that the amount [of] paid leave for domestic violence would be meaningful.”

The territorial government is also considering unpaid leave for people caring for a critically ill or injured family member, and extended parental leave.

The Department of Education, Culture and Employment is seeking public input on the proposed changes. Employees and employers can fill out surveys on the government’s website until Jan. 14.

Originally posted on on January 9, 2019 by Sidney Cohen