How Employers Can Help when Home Isn’t Safe: Domestic Violence and COVID-19

As the spread of COVID-19 forces Canadians to stay home, people who live with an abusive parent or partner are at increased risk of violence. Employers have a role to play in ensuring that their employees stay as safe as possible.

This morning the federal government announced $50 million for women’s shelters and sexual assault centres, along with a host of other measures to help workers and businesses get through the pandemic. The emergency relief is important. Shelters are facing complex challenges as they work to ensure safety throughout the crisis. New federal funding will help frontline services respond effectively, but employers need to be proactive as well.

To support their staff and ensure safety for those subjected to violence, employers can:

  1. Continue to pay workers: Economic security is critical for survivors. Lost income makes it even more difficult to leave a violent relationship. Survivors frequently have to cover legal expenses, pay for counselling, and/or cover moving costs. Facing the possibility of increased payments for rent or mortgages, utility bills, child care and other everyday expenses, is even more daunting if a survivor doesn’t have an independent income stream. Therefore, losing or reducing paychecks could further trap victims in a relationship and home that isn’t safe. If an employer is forced to close or reduce hours they should continue to pay the workers. If an employer lays workers off, then at minimum they should offer assistance for workers to access EI. If the workplace is unionized employers must inform workers of their right to union representation throughout the layoff process.
     
  2. Share domestic violence resources with all staff: Someone experiencing violence might not be aware of available supports. And survivors are often closely monitored by their partners, which makes seeking out resources even more difficult if they are at home with their partner nearly 24/7. Work emails might appear less “suspicious” to an abusive partner or parent. Employers can send out information about crisis lines and shelters so that workers know help is available. Sheltersafe has a list of shelters across Canada. It is important to remind employees that they do not need to be seeking shelter to get support. Women’s shelters and transition houses can offer help over the phone.

  3. Where relevant, ensure workers have access to secure VPNs: As mentioned above, survivors are often subjected to online monitoring. Many workplaces use Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to allow access to files remotely. VPNs can also allow survivors to search for resources and get support privately as they are more difficult to hack in to. Workers should be informed about how the VPN works, what content and activity is viewable to third parties, and how they might be able to increase their online privacy.
     
  4. Ensure EAPs remain accessible: Many Employee Assistance Plans (EAPs) offer resources and supports to workers who experience violence. Employers should work to ensure that these remain accessible even during workplace closures. They should remind staff that they are available and confidential.
     
  5. Work with shelters to adapt safety plans: For those with a current or former partner perpetrating violence, workplace safety plans are critical. If an employer has a worker with an existing safety plan, and that worker is now at home or their work has otherwise changed, the employer should work with the employee and professional service providers to adapt this safety plan to the new context.

  6. Check in with staff to reduce isolation: People in violent relationships are often isolated. Abusers will frequently force survivors to cut off contact with family or friends. In many cases, the workplace is one of the only areas where someone has social contact outside of their home. “Social distancing” is critical for public health but unfortunately has the complicated effect of increasing isolation. Employers should arrange phone calls and video meetings with workers. They should let workers know that they remain available and encourage co-workers to continue to communicate – even for non-work related purposes.
     
  7. Donate to frontline services: Even with the new federal funding announcement, shelters and frontline organizations remain underfunded. Community needs for anti-violence services will likely increase throughout the pandemic, and the uniqueness of the situation makes shelter and anti-violence organizations’ work more complicated. These organizations need support now more than ever. Businesses, unions and individuals should donate to anti-violence organizations. It also helps signal to employees that the employer takes domestic violence seriously.