Critics say Ontario’s proposed domestic violence leave falls short

The Wynne government wants to offer up to 17 weeks leave, but since it is all unpaid it will not help those who need it most

Ontario workers experiencing domestic and sexual violence need a paid leave, advocates and politicians say.

The government of Kathleen Wynne responded by announcing on Oct. 5 that it is changing the Employment Standards Act to guarantee unpaid leave for employees if they, or their children, have experienced domestic or sexual violence.

The Liberals' proposal would allow workers two options, 10 days and 15 weeks of unpaid leave a year if they or their children are experiencing domestic or sexual violence. This makes the total leave 17 weeks of work, all unpaid. They can use this time to seek medical, psychological or legal help; attend court hearings, or move. Employers can count a partial day taken off as a full day, and a partial week taken off could be considered the equivalent of a full week. The 15-week period is for employees needing more time off to complete certain necessities to get through the crisis. The time off does not need to be taken continuously.

The announcement comes as the government debates amendments to Bill 148, The Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, introduced in June. The bill would make several changes to the Employment Standards Act and Labour Relations Act. Proposed changes include guaranteeing all workers 10 days of personal emergency leave a year, the first two of which to be paid leave. The bill added domestic and sexual violence to the reasons employees can take emergency time off work.

But unions and activists criticized the bill for not doing enough to support workers leaving violent relationships.

While the newly announced leave is an improvement, it “missed the key point” which is pay, said Peggy Sattler, NDP member of provincial parliament for London-West, who introduced a private members’ bill last year to create 10-days’ paid leave and “reasonable” unpaid leave for workers experiencing domestic violence. The bill passed second reading last October.

Sattler called the government’s response in Bill 148 “inadequate” and “completely opposite” to what individuals said was needed.

“Offering leave is an illusory benefit if people can’t actually afford to take the time away from work to access the leave,” Sattler said.

“There’s a real risk that the most vulnerable survivors of domestic violence or sexual violence won’t get any benefit at all from the unpaid leave that’s in the legislation.”

The government also needs to ensure employers and co-workers are trained in how to spot domestic violence and support those experiencing it.

In late September, Andrea Horwath, leader of the provincial NDP, introduced a bill that would guarantee workers experiencing domestic or sexual violence 10 days of paid leave. The government would pay for those days, the bill says. Workers could also access up to 15 weeks of unpaid leave in a year.

Sattler’s bill also included an unpaid leave, but did not specify how long the leave could be. It did not say the government would pay for the leave.

The NDP has made guaranteeing this leave part of its platform if it wins the next election, Sattler said.

In a statement to rabble.ca, Minister of Labour Kevin Flynn said this leave was created as a “direct result” of the feedback the government heard throughout the summer.

Flynn said that leaves are usually a partnership between the provincial and federal governments. The province supplies job protection; the federal government provides income to workers on leave.

“I believe we can accomplish this when it comes to domestic and sexual violence, as well,” the statement says. “Victims shouldn’t have to worry about how they’re going to pay their rent or buy groceries for their family.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Labour confirmed in an email that the minister has already contacted the federal government about financial coverage.

Right now, Employment Insurance (EI) is provided for workers on maternity, paternity and compassionate care leaves. The federal government also provides benefits for parents of critically ill children and grants for parents whose children are missing or murdered.

Women’s advocates echo Sattler’s concerns.

“An unpaid leave in its entirety, which is what has been proposed, is not going to support (financial) advancement” for women, said Marlene Ham, provincial coordinator for the Ontario Association of Interval & Transition Houses (OAITH). Financial control is often an element in domestic and sexual violence, said Ham. Women need to know they can afford to leave abusive relationships.

OAITH wrote to the government during the summer to say domestic and sexual violence leaves need to be paid, and be separate from other emergency personal leaves.

Employees experiencing domestic and sexual violence have particular needs, like accessing family and legal supports, that aren’t covered by personal emergency leave days, she said. A separate leave recognizes the “unique dynamics” of domestic and sexual violence, she said.

The organization would like at least five days of paid domestic and sexual violence leave guaranteed, she said. There also needs to be workplace training about domestic violence.

More provinces are including domestic and sexual violence leave in their laws. Earlier this year, Alberta passed legislation that guaranteed 10 days of unpaid leave for workers experiencing domestic or sexual violence. Manitoba passed legislation last year that gives workers five days of paid leave in these circumstances.

Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca’s labour reporter.

 

Image: Flickr/Zorah Olivia

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