Women take up family violence leave as ACTU lobbies employers to step up

November 22, 2015  | Original article via The Sydney Morning Herald

Sometimes, a day off work can save a life.

As more employers embrace the concept of domestic violence leave, one woman said the paid time off was "the difference between life and death", allowing her to seek an intervention order against her violent ex-husband.

A survey of more than 100 businesses across a range of industries has shown that more than one-third of employers had granted at least one request for family violence leave in the past 12 months.

The vast majority were women, taking an average of two or three days off to attend to legal and medical matters, move house or take steps to boost their safety.

*Sally, a Victorian teacher, said without the time off she would have been at risk from her former husband who had a 13 year history of violence, stalking and threatening to kill her and their three children.

After taking out six intervention orders she was forced to abandon legal proceedings because she had run out of sick leave due to repeated returns to court and visits to counsellors and solicitors.

"I had already gone two days without pay and couldn't afford the $700 in legal aid fees as well as the money I would lose taking time off work. So in November last year I had no choice but to not go ahead with an intervention order, which put me and my family at risk," she said.

"I was then confronted in a public place by the perpetrator and we had to really lock ourselves in over Christmas and New Year."

Sally later contacted her union and was able to access domestic violence leave, allowing her to seek another intervention order.

Commissioned by the Australian Council of Trade Unions and conducted by Gendered Violence Research Network and the University of New South Wales, the research found that most employers had embraced the scheme, saying it had improved staff morale and productivity.

Victoria's Royal Commission into Family Violence has heard that victims often have trouble remaining in paid employment as they struggle to cope with physical and psychological trauma and deal with legal issues.

Steve Gunn, chief executive of footwear company Blundstone, introduced domestic violence leave four months ago and encouraged other employers to take it up.

"If they want to retain their staff and keep them performing well, even if you weren't driven by altruistic motives, there is still a rational argument to why you go down this path because you could end up with your best employee no longer working for you because they don't have the confidence to come to you and allow you to help them," he said.

Australian of the Year Rosie Batty, whose son Luke was murdered by her ex-partner, has backed the ACTU's campaign to have 10 days of family violence leave granted to all employees.

Unions and employers have negotiated 860 workplace agreements with domestic violence leave provisions, and the ACTU has a claim lodged with the Fair Work Commission to extend this to all workers.

But some employer groups have fought the move, saying it would destroy small business.

Half of the companies surveyed had more than 100 employees, one-quarter had more than 1000, and one-fifth had 20 to 99 staff members.

The study covered organisations in a range of sectors including health, education, government, transport, finance and the arts.

It found that many businesses had also introduced safety strategies for staff experiencing domestic violence, including increasing security entering or leaving the workplace, screening of phone calls or email and installing panic alarms.

ACTU president Ged Kearney said the results showed that domestic violence leave is an overwhelmingly positive experience for employers and their staff and called on all businesses to adopt it.

"Those who fear for their or their family's safety should not have to worry about losing their jobs if they need to attend court or access community support," she said.

*Not her real name