Survivors struggle to access domestic violence leave, two years on from bill

Warning: This article contains experiences of domestic violence.

Employers are being urged to treat domestic violence leave the same as sick leave as survivors report barriers to accessing it – some even needing to provide proof from police.

One woman who escaped violence was shocked victims were being asked to offer evidence of abuse, saying it was “disgusting” they weren’t being believed.

Workers affected by domestic violence are by law allowed up to 10 days of annual leave which could be used for recovery, counselling, moving house, dealing with Family Court or safety planning.

But two years on from the entitlements becoming available, the Herald has heardsurvivors still struggle to get the time off, and employers report that uptake is low.

Callers to a helpline run by national domestic abuse charity Shine report being asked by bosses for proof showing they are affected by family violence, such as a police report or letter from a support service.

“I just wish more employers would get rid of the requirement for proof. It’s not going to lead to a flood of employees asking for this leave,” said Shine’s Holly Carrington.

“When you think about sick leave, the law requires you to have a note or certificate, but most employers don’t ask for a medical certificate. They only ask if there’s some belief there’s an issue,” Carrington said.

One survivor told the Herald how difficult it is to approach management about domestic violence in the first place.

“I can’t believe someone would ask [for proof]. It’s disgusting,” Aiga* said.

“Managers are not very good when it comes to that kōrero. I’ve had really bad experiences myself where they don’t understand domestic violence situations.

“They don’t get it. They question you and start saying really unhealthy things like: ‘You need to get your life in order’.”

Green MP Jan Logie, who spearheaded the law around the leave, was saddened to learn employers had asked workers to prove they experienced domestic violence.

“We know only 20 or 25 per cent of cases are reported to police so it’s unrealistic to expect that to be a form of proof,” she told the Herald.

Logie was also open to the idea of tweaking the legislation, which currently allows employers to ask for proof.

“It’s worth exploring more. Whether it’s explicit [in the bill] proof is not required to access the leave or whether there’s a very strict limitation, where an employer may only ask for proof if there are reasonable grounds to think it’s being misused.

“Then the obligation would be on the employer to prove that.”

Countdown, Fonterra and The Warehouse Group – which have domestic violence policies – all said uptake of the leave has been low.None of the three companies said they ask for proof from employees who have suffered domestic violence.

Just under 100 out of 22,000 Countdown staff – overwhelmingly women – have accessed domestic violence leave since the supermarket chain’s policy began in 2016.

Countdown’s Kiri Hannifin says it shows concerns that businesses would be swamped with requests for the leave are unfounded.

“People haven’t taken advantage of it. I think it shows absolute desperation of people who do come forward, it’s really hard to ask for help.”

The Warehouse Group said it receives around 20 requests per year for domestic violence leave since it introduced its policy in 2015, and it has been used for an array of reasons such as attending doctors’ appointments and Women’s Refuge sessions.

“I know there were a lot of concerns [at the time the bill was passed] that this might be potentially abused.Over six years we’ve never seen anything like that whatsoever,” said chief human resources officer Richard Parker.

“We’re still conscious privacy is a major issue. I suspect there are still a lot of people who aren’t claiming it … they are concerned with people knowing, including their employer.”

Of seven large companies that are accredited with Shine’s DV Free training, Carrington said less than 0.5 per cent of staff has used domestic violence leave in the past two years.

Among staff that did, it was rare for them to use all 10 days, she said.

It’s believed uptake is low because of thestigma that still surrounds abuse.

In Jayde’s* experience, her employer was reluctant to grant her leave because the abuse she suffered was from an ex-partner.

She told Women’s Refuge she was eventually offered time off to attend a court hearing, but the employer could not find cover for the specific date and refused her application.

“Jayde’s case is testament to the need for employers to be informed about how family violence sabotages victims’ employment,” says Women’s Refuge principal policy adviser Natalie Thorburn.

“Victims rarely feel able to disclose violence after the first violent episode. When they do disclose it, it is already impacting them.”

'Second wave of education'

Advocates say there was “a flurry” of interest when the bill was first passed, but it’s time for a second wave of education.

Fonterra, which has had a domestic violence policy in place since 2017, is urging other businesses to see it as a benefit.

“You’re able to plan for absences. People would call up and say ‘Hey I’m sick. I can’t come in’, but it’s because they had to be at a court date,” said the co-operative’s Matt Trent.

“The advantage of this policy is those people can come forward and managers can plan around their absence instead of scrambling on the day.”

Carrington and Logie have called on the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) to ramp up the information being offered, particularly to small businesses without HR departments.

Logie and Carrington also encouraged more training in workplaces, and having it joined up with work around sexual harassment.

“My ideal would be for some of our survivor agencies to partner with unions and get funding through ACC to deliver training across the country,” said Logie.

“New Zealand should be really proud of bringing in legislation and the difference it has been making in supporting those who have experienced domestic violence as well as employers.

“They’ve been left to deal with situations outside of their skillset for a really long time. I’ve always seen this legislation as the start of a response that involves more people.”

* Names used in this article are aliases.

Where to go for help or more information

• Women’s Refuge: Free national crisis line operates 24/7 – 0800 REFUGE or 0800 733 843

• Shine, free national helpline 9am- 11pm every day – 0508 744 633

• It’s Not Ok: Information line 0800 456 450 www.areyouok.org.nz

• Shakti: Providing specialist cultural services for African, Asian and Middle Eastern women and their children. Crisis line 24/7 0800 742 584

• Ministry of Justice: www.justice.govt.nz/family-justice/domestic-violence

• National Network of Stopping Violence: www.nnsvs.org.nz

• White Ribbon: Aiming to eliminate men’s violence towards women www.whiteribbon.org.nz

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