By Lily Dayton
Sonoma County resident Kami Reep was fired from two consecutive bookkeeping jobs in 2015—but not because she’d performed poorly or done anything wrong. In each case, she was fired because she had to take time off after her abusive ex-husband kidnapped two of their three children.
Reep was at work when she got the call from her daughters’ after-school care facility, notifying her that the girls were gone.
“I dropped everything and told my boss, ‘He’s got them. I have to go,’” says Reep. She had recently taken a couple days off work—without pay—so she could go to court to file a restraining order against her violent, drug-addicted ex. Now, little more than a week later, he had stolen the girls and fled the state. Reep left work in a panic.
“They were gone three days and I was in constant contact with my boss,” Reep recounts. The police recovered the girls and arrested their father in Washington State. It was a Saturday when the girls were returned to their mother and, relieved, Reep let her boss know that her ex was in jail, her daughters were safe, and she would return to work Monday morning. But her boss replied with an email notifying Reep not to bother—she’d been fired.
Reep recalls the words her boss wrote: “Sorry, I don’t need the drama.’”
“That was devastating,” says Reep. This was the first time she’d been fired from a job. She’d lost pay when she missed work to file a restraining order and she’d lost even more when she missed the three days while her children were gone. She was short on rent that month and had received a notice from her landlord. Then she lost her source of income.
Though she found a new job two weeks later, she was terminated within a week when she confided in her supervisor that she might have to take time off work in order to testify against her ex-husband, who was in prison without bail. After they spoke, says Reep, the supervisor looked up the kidnapping incident on the Internet and found a YouTube video of her ex-husband’s arrest. Later, Reep received a text message from the company owner, notifying her that she was terminated because she hadn’t disclosed her personal situation when she was hired.
“They said I was putting everyone in the office in danger,” says Reep. “It was like victimizing the victim… I felt like I had done something wrong.”
Reep was fired for the second time on July 7, nearly a week after California employees could start accruing paid “safe time” under the Healthy Workplace Healthy Family Act of 2014. Under the new law, California is now one of seven states with safe time laws that allow employees who are victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking to use paid sick days to take care of medical, legal and safety issues resulting from their abuse.
“We know that financial independence is essential to a victim’s ability to escape abuse,” says Sharon Terman, senior staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society – Employment Law Center. “Without paid safe time, survivors are often in the position of having to choose between staying safe and staying employed.”
In addition to needing time off to go to court, many survivors need time to seek medical treatment, engage in safety planning, meet with a counselor or find shelter. A CDC study showed that domestic violence victims lose an average of seven workdays per victimization; women stalked by an intimate partner lose an average of 10 workdays. Numerous studies over the past 15 years have found a relationship between intimate partner violence and employment instability. With one in three women experiencing abuse at the hands of an intimate partner throughout her lifetime, a recent report by McKinsey and Company determined that violence against women is one major factor contributing to pay inequity for women across the U.S.
“As we move into a different economic reality with more and more women moving into the workforce at greater numbers than ever before, we need to accommodate women’s needs in the workplace,” says Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara). “To deny the importance of that reality costs businesses enormously and reduces the quality of life for everyone.”
Like many victims, Reep wasn’t aware of her rights at the time she was fired. But even if she had been aware of the new law, she wouldn’t have been granted safe time benefits at that point—California allows employees to accrue paid sick days (which can be used for safe time) after 30 days of employment, and they are ineligible to use these benefits until after 90 days of employment.
Still, under California law, Reep did have a job-protected right to take unpaid leave to deal with issues stemming from domestic violence, says Terman, who represented Reep in a law suit she settled with one of the employers who fired her unjustly.
“Paid safe time is relatively recent, but a movement to enact workplace protection for survivors goes much farther back,” explains Terman. In 1999, the state legislature enacted a law into the Labor Code that allows victims of domestic violence unpaid but job-protected time off to go to court. The following year, a second law was passed to provide unpaid, job-protected leave for victims seeking other forms of relief, such as medical attention, shelter and counseling.
But more than a decade later, women like Reep were still fired after disclosing they were victims. So, in 2013, the legislature passed SB 400 into law, prohibiting employers from discriminating against victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. The law also requires employers to provide reasonable workplace accommodations for employees who are victimized.
“It is a sad reality that we do see a large amount of violence associated with relationships and sexual assault—and this does have an impact on the workplace,” says Senator Jackson, who authored SB 400. “Employers need to recognize this and they need to be willing to make accommodations to protect their workers. If you have safer, happier employees, you have more productive employees.”
In what Jackson calls a “logical extension,” this past legislative session California legislators passed AB 2337, which goes into effect January 2017 and will require employers to inform employees of workplace protections for victims of intimate partner violence.
Since the statewide safe time law went into effect, seven cities in California—San Francisco, Oakland, Emeryville, Santa Monica, San Diego, Los Angeles and Berkeley—have created their own municipal safe time laws, which are in many cases stronger than state law. For example, the state requires employers to provide only three days of paid sick leave (including safe time) to employees each year. Yet San Francisco recently passed a law that requires small businesses to provide five days of annual sick leave, and large businesses (with 10 or more employees) to provide nine days of annual sick leave. San Francisco’s provision will go into effect in January 2017.
As for Reep, she did eventually find another job. During the interview, she disclosed her challenging situation to her new employer, who she describes as “totally understanding and supportive.” When the date arrived for Reep to testify in court, she was able to take advantage of the new safe time law and get paid time off.
“The feeling was indescribable,” says Reep. “It was a relief to not have to feel like I’m being punished for somebody else’s actions—and to have that security that my financial world won’t fall apart because I was the victim of a crime.”