What do Canadian provinces offer around domestic violence leave?

Original Article: Martha Porado, Benefits Canada | Dec. 13, 2017

Saskatchewan is the latest province to introduce legislation providing protected leave for victims of domestic violence.

Introduced on Dec. 6, 2017, the bill received royal assent the following day. The new provision allows for a maximum of 10 days of unpaid leave, whether the violence is directed at the employee personally, their children or a person for whom an employee is a caregiver, regardless of whether that person and the employee have lived together at any time.

It allows employees in Saskatchewan to take leave for a number of reasons, including: seeking medical attention for themselves or a dependant; obtaining help from a victim services organization; obtaining psychological or professional counselling; relocation either temporarily or permanently; seeking legal or law enforcement help, including preparation for legal proceedings; or any other prescribed purpose.

For purposes of definition, the bill notes domestic violence can come in the form of intentional, reckless or threatened acts or omissions that cause bodily harm or property damage; similar acts or omissions that cause reasonable fear of bodily harm or property damage; psychological or emotional abuse; forced confinement; sexual abuse; and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of domestic violence.

“This legislation is part of a larger effort by government to address the issue of interpersonal violence in Saskatchewan,” said Don Morgan, the province’s labour relations and workplace safety minister, in a press release. “We recognize that interpersonal violence is a serious problem for Saskatchewan families. In addition to this legislation, we need to see a shift in attitudes about acceptable behaviour and we need to develop measures to identify and prevent abusive relationships.”

The workplace isn’t immune to the problems that arise from such relationships. In October, a survey by the Provincial Association of Transition Houses of Saskatchewan found 83 per cent of people who experience violence from their intimate partner bring those troubles to work in some form. Of that number, 29 per cent said their partners come to their place of work to check up on them, 35 per cent said the violence prevents them from showing up to work and 44 per cent said they receive repeated calls, emails or texts from their partners while at work.

Saskatchewan’s latest efforts on this issue follow in the footsteps of several other provinces.

On June 1, 2016, Manitoba became the first province to legislate leave for domestic violence victims. Its leave consists of 10 days — five of which are paid — as needed in a 52-week period, or 17 weeks taken in one continuous period. 

The legislation was brought in because “domestic violence leave was seen by a lot of local folks in the domestic violence community as really a significant part of a larger strategy to try and prevent domestic violence, and as a real way that they saw us supporting victims,” says Jay Short, manager of special investigations and regulatory development for Manitoba.

Employment is a key factor for those taking steps to get out of a violent relationship, he says, whether it be an issue of financial strain as a result of leaving or the inability to take time off do deal with the immediate reality of getting out of the situation without fear of damaging a relationship with an employer.

“If, ultimately, you can be let go from your job when you’re trying to access that, well, you might just stay in the relationship because you ultimately can’t get the time to deal with the issues you’re dealing with, so it’s really important that we provide a leave that provides protections,” says Short.

Alberta is set to introduce similar leave provisions, from Jan. 1, 2018, which allow employees to take 10 days of unpaid leave for each calendar year. The province’s definition of domestic abuse and the reasons employees can take the leave are very similar to those of Saskatchewan, though it also specifically includes stalking.

Ontario is also bringing in new leave from Jan. 1, 2018, with 10 individual days, five of which are paid, and a longer period of 15 weeks of protected leave.

Other provinces are watching closely as these new provisions take effect.

“We certainly are watching what other jurisdictions are doing,” says Constance Robinson, director of labour and industrial relations for Prince Edward Island. “Domestic violence leave is one where we’re hearing some voices, particularly from the labour voices in our community. And so we are watching what they have done, and continue to take the pulse,” she adds.

While Nova Scotia doesn’t currently have any domestic violence leave in place, the province is exploring the possibility of introducing it, says Lynn Hartley, director of labour standards for Nova Scotia.

Across Canada, the move to provide this type of leave will result in conversations many employers may not feel prepared for, says Sari Sanders, a vice-president and legal leader at Aon Hewitt Canada. 

“These [are] sensitive issues that employers and managers never felt they had to address, maybe their HR groups did, but how do you train someone to deal with domestic violence? Violence against your child? Those are very personal, private issues,” she says.

Indeed, the new Saskatchewan legislation clarifies the issue of privacy, stating an employer must maintain confidentiality regarding the leave and may not disclose related information to anyone except for other employees or agents who require the information to perform their job functions, or unless the employee taking the leave consents. Those then privy to the information are subject to the same restrictions.

“Those kinds of leaves, especially when the time periods are taken intermittently like that, require a lot of disclosure between the employee and employer, a lot of HR departments or the employee and the employee’s manager,” says Sanders, noting that having these sensitive conversations is going to raise issues of training and privacy for employers.

As of now, British Columbia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nunavut, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories have yet to commit to anything surrounding the issue.