Breaking ground on paid leave in Ontario

Women who are in abusive relationships often feel as if they have nowhere to turn and no one to ask for help. That’s the thing about abuse and abusers -- they know exactly how to isolate and manipulate their spouses or partners into believing it's their fault and that they are completely alone.

Support from the workplace can be critical to someone’s ability to re-establish herself and to make a new life. A regular paycheque allows her to save money to make a move and to maintain her standard of life for herself and her children if she is a mother. Someone experiencing abuse may need to vary her work hours to confuse an abuser who is stalking her. She may need colleagues to keep watch on the parking lot to make sure no one is waiting for her when she leaves; a manager to let her switch to an office without a window because she feels too exposed; IT personnel to reset passwords if the abuser hacks her accounts. And she may need time off, for legal appointments, counselling appointments or to attend to the needs of her children. Without that support, her job may be jeopardized, making her even more vulnerable to economic insecurity and poverty.

Unaddressed, the impact of domestic violence cascades across society. 

Research has shown that women who experience domestic violence also have more disrupted work histories and have to change jobs more frequently. They are more likely to work in temporary and low-paying work and therefore have lower personal incomes. Workplaces that do not provide support for employees experiencing domestic violence face significant costs attributed to lowered productivity, absenteeism and turnover.

A national study released in 2014 by the Canadian Labour Congress and the University of Western Ontario’s Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children found that 82 per cent of workers who had experienced domestic violence said it hurt their job performance. Nearly 40 per cent said it made them late or miss work, with 8.5 per cent saying it got them fired.  Aftershocks from violent events spread through the workplace: nearly 30 per cent of co-workers reported that their work performance suffered due to the stress they were feeling for their victimized colleagues.

Important changes are happening in Canada to support women fleeing abuse. In June 2010, the Ontario government pioneered the first legislation in the world to include domestic violence in the definition of workplace violence under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Six years later, in June 2016, Manitoba became the first province to pass legislation for five days of paid leave for victims of domestic violence, guaranteeing job security while they take time off to sort out their lives and find a new place to live.

Workplaces that ignore warning signs and risk factors of domestic violence among their workers also expose themselves to the potential trauma of losing an employee to a domestic homicide and/or the risk of a violent event occurring at the workplace.

Very recently news broke that the federal government is studying the new Manitoba legislation and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has given Labour Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk a mandate to amend the Canada Labour Code to give employees the right to formally request flexible work arrangements.

In Ontario Bill 177 passed second reading in the spring of 2016. The Ontario bill with proposed changes to both the Employment Standards Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act goes beyond Manitoba with ten days of paid leave as well as unpaid leave and the opportunity for flexible work arrangements for victims of sexual as well as domestic violence.

The private members bill underscores the importance of protecting employment while giving women the time they need to access emergency, legal and social services, many of which operate only during business hours, Monday to Friday. Similar laws can be found in the United States, protecting victims of sexual and domestic violence, as well as stalking.

Ontario has several options for ensuring workers have access to paid domestic violence leave when they need it. The government could pass Bill 177 into legislation, or they could draw on Bill 177 to pass their own legislation. Or they could revise the Employment Standards Act that is currently being looked at through the Changing Workplaces Review.  

Concerns that employees might take advantage of the accommodation are unfounded. Australian unions have bargained for access to paid leave for workers experiencing domestic violence since 2012. Currently 2 million workers in the public and private sectors have access to paid leave. A 2015 study commissioned by the Australian Council of Trade Unions has shown that workers are using the leave judiciously, usually taking no more than two or three days off work. They have demonstrated that this accommodation does not place an onerous burden on employers. Furthermore, most employers have embraced the change, saying it improves staff morale and productivity and allows employers to support and retain good staff through difficult times.

The evidence is clear. Being in employment is a key pathway for women in restoring their lives. The financial security that employment affords helps to prevent women from becoming trapped in abusive relationships and helps them maintain a quality of life for themselves and their children. Moreover, the benefit of supporting abused women in their workplaces translates directly to the bottom line for employers and for the broader society.

It’s time to do the right thing.


1Canadian Women’s Foundation identifies single mothers as a marginalized group disproportionally living in poverty.