Proposal For Implementing Paid Leave to Victims of Sexual Assault in the Workforce
By Haley Brettschneider
“I went from feeling broken, to surviving, to healing . . .” That’s how Danielle began her story.
Recent studies estimate that up to eight in ten women will experience workplace sexual harassment in their lifetimes. Danielle was one of them.
As an intern this summer with Every Voice Coalition, where I helped advocate for legislation to end the epidemic of campus sexual violence, I got to know the women like Danielle behind the statistics while editing the organization’s blog. I was shocked to discover not only the extent of sexual violence on college campuses, but also the prevalence of such violence once they graduate and enter the workforce. Reading accounts like Danielle’s, I saw how sexual assault can translate into physical and mental health problems, like depression and anxiety, career interruption, and lower pay.
The legislative focus of Every Voice taught me that changing the laws could change the workplace culture that allows for such behavior. After researching the issue with my mentor, Professor Rachael Goodwin, I recommend a policy to grant survivors of workplace sexual assault paid leave as soon as they come forward to report an incident. By making such a policy standard, we could help survivors feel supported in speaking up about abuse, and make the workplace feel safe for all.
Below I have attached the policy proposal that Professor Rachael Goodwin and I developed this summer. Real protection for women requires changes to our legal system and sexual violence at work not only hurts the victim; it creates a workplace culture of fear. A policy like this that supports survivors speaks to an organization’s values, instilling trust among its employees that toxic and dangerous behavior will not be tolerated. It’s time to show survivors like Danielle that their well-being, not just their productivity, is a priority for their bosses and colleagues.
- To encourage New York State workplaces to provide greater support for employees who experience sexual assault victimization when engaged in work related activities.
- More specifically, we recommend that workplaces provide employee victims who are assaulted, with a minimum of 80 hours (the equivalent of two work weeks) of flexible paid time off available immediately following their first allegation of sexual assault, to be used at the discretion of the victim.
- Our goals through this policy are (1) to assist with victims’ recovery, and (2) to signal organizational support to the victim in coming forward with their allegation. In doing so, we argue there are also opportunities for organizations to mitigate potential organizational defamation.
- As sexual misconduct grows in prevalence across countries, states, and occupational industries, the possibility of sexual assault occuring at work also increases, potentially affecting everyone at work. Sexual assault victims suffer from anxiety and stress, a lack of self worth, loss of appetite and weight fluctuations, and mental health issues.
- For example, women who experience sexual assault are three times more likely to develop a depressive disorder. Employee bystanders or observers are also negatively affected as acts of sexual misconduct contribute to toxic work environments that may [increase employee turnover and decrease employee performance,] engagement, and satisfaction. These consequences of sexual misconduct may also result in lawsuits and less revenue as customers may be less likely to shop from stores that have reputations for sexual misconduct.
- To prevent sexual assault and it’s consequences in organizations, some organizations encourage anyone with knowledge of sexual misconduct to report their experiences immediately. Many efforts have been made to accomplish this. For example, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 discourages discrimination at work and encourages reporting discrimination at work; California, Delaware, Maine, and New York have new sexual assault training guidelines for workplaces; the Fair Employment and Housing Act in California requires employers to provide two or more hours of interactive sexual harassment prevention training to all supervisory employees. New York also requires all employers to provide sexual harassment training to all employees. We applaud these efforts.
- However, despite these efforts to increase sexual harassment training, many sexual assault victims still do not feel safe making an allegation because they may fear loss of employment or being retaliated against after coming forward.
- We define a sexual assault allegation as any claim or assertion of sexual assault recognized by the equal opportunity office, human resources, police department, or other sexaul assault response coordinators or victim advocates.
- Research also suggests victims may also face the obstacle of lacking credibility even though the strong majority of victims who come forward are credible. As such, organizations must do more to help victims feel safe to come forward with their credible allegations. For example, sexual assault cases often occur in workplaces where victims are not given compensation when cases occur. Over 72% of sexual assault victims don’t report the incidents to their workplace.
- Given the psychological obstacles most sexual assault victims encounter when considering whether or not to come forward with an allegation, it is our opinion that one way workplaces can help victims feel safety in coming forward is to provide them with paid time off or paid leave.
Limitations and Barriers
- Workplace leave may have negative effects on victims of sexual assault (similar to the way women who have taken maternity leave may suffer unintended consequences hindering them from promotional or leadership opportunities). Relatedly, taking time off may be seen as a weakness that may threaten women’s power in organizations. To mitigate these potential risks, we recommend organizations provide flexible leave options for victims. For example, it may be advantageous for victims to have the opportunity to choose whether they use hours/days/half-days rather than only having the option to take 1-2 weeks of leave at a time.
- We also acknowledge that this policy memo is directed towards large organizations who already have the infrastructure to support paid leave. Smaller organizations may need subsidies or other types of funding to help them to support their victim employees.
- The current policy memo is limited to employee victims of severe cases of sexual harassment which we call “sexual assault.” We define sexual assault as attempted rape, unwanted or uncomfortable sexual touching, or forcing a victim to perform sexual actions (e.g., oral sex). We acknowledge that many other victims of less severe sexual harassment (e.g., inappropriate or uncomfortable remarks of a sexual nature) may not be included under this policy. However, we hope this policy memo inspires workplaces to implement future policies to support any victim of sexual misconduct regardless of the severity.
Giving victims of sexual assault flexible paid leave will engender a healthier work environment.
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