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October 31, 2022 Domestic Violence

Paid Family & Medical Leave as an Economic Support for Survivors of IPV

By: Rebecca Zimmerman

Intimate partner violence (IPV) survivors shoulder the burden of navigating the criminal and civil courts, securing physical safety for themselves and their children, and tending to the physical, mental, and spiritual damage inflected upon them and their loved ones. Beyond those hardships, research also shows that seeking protection from IPV (often called domestic violence in legal settings) has a high financial cost and often results in long-lasting economic instability. Criminal intervention can lead to loss of housing, jobs, and public and employment benefits. Survivors may need to miss work for legal appointments, court dates, relocating or obtaining safe shelter, or accessing medical and mental healthcare and advocacy services.  A survivor averages seven days of absence from work and spends $800 in medical and mental health care each time they are assaulted. It is not unusual for such absences to last weeks or months while the survivor accesses IPV services.  Abusive partners may intentionally sabotage survivors’ employment by creating workplace disruptions, refusing to assist with childcare, or emotional abuse before work, leading to employment instability. Research indicates that survivors lose $1,018 in income on average in the year after involving civil courts in their case, and that loss is never made up.

Paid Safe Leave (also called Paid Safe Time) is a policy that addresses this issue by enabling survivors of IPV, sexual assault, and stalking to take paid leave from their jobs to address needs including medical and mental healthcare, court proceedings, and securing safe housing and social services. Typically, the leave-taking worker’s salary is paid by an insurance program into which both employer and employee pay a small, regular amount. Job protection is sometimes included in the policy in addition to paid time off. Workers can already use Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protections to address medical needs resulting from IPV. Time off under FMLA, however, is unpaid and does not allow for workers to use leave for non-medical needs related to their or a family member’s abuse, such as petitioning for a protective order, accessing social services, or moving. 

Safe Leave is often packaged as a provision within larger Paid Family and Medical Leave (PMFL) policies or sick time laws. Currently, 17 states, the District of Columbia, and several cities and counties have Safe Leave provisions in their laws. Like PMFL, Safe Leave has the potential to be enacted at the federal level as well as the state and local level should a favorable policy context and political will occur nationally. In states where Safe Leave does not currently exist and at the federal level, the advocacy and testimony of attorneys who work with IPV survivors could be a powerful driver toward enacting these beneficial laws. In the meantime, attorneys can recommend survivors consider using FMLA, paid sick time, and laws that protect survivors from being terminated or evicted due to IPV incidents. In states and localities where Safe Leave does exist, it’s a helpful strategy to suggest to IPV survivors and may help them preserve their ability to maintain their livelihoods and afford the high cost of surviving IPV.

The research shows that whether or not they choose to separate from their abusers, survivors experience better outcomes when they are able to experience empowerment and attain self-efficacy. Survivors most consistently report two areas that complicate or advance their self-efficacy: 1) material resources (especially lack of employment, low income, and lack of access to childcare, housing, and transportation) and 2) social-psychological variables (lack of social support from family, therapy, and community). In relationships where coercive control and economic abuse are perpetrated, economic stressors may limit the survivor’s ability to leave the relationship, and this is often an intentional tactic by the abuser to create fear and keep the survivor from escaping. Anything that attorneys and advocates can do to promote survivors’ economic wellbeing contributes to positive outcomes for the survivor.

Survivors of IPV (and sexual assault and stalking) are facing the battle of their lives. Danger, stress, and economic hardship compound quickly. The more widely accessible economic empowerment policies like Safe Leave become, and the more survivors are encouraged by their allies to take advantage of them, the more successful they will be at winning their safety and long-term stability.

States with Safe Leave Laws

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Colorado
  • Illinois
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • Texas
  • Vermont
  • Washington
  • Washington, DC
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    Rebecca Zimmerman


    Rebecca Zimmerman, MSW (she/her) is a doctoral student researcher at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social work studying intimate partner violence and public policy. She is the former Chair of the Policy Committee at Violence Free Colorado and has testified as an expert witness at the Colorado Legislature on matters involving intimate partner violence, of which she is a survivor.