Domestic and sexual violence is widespread in the United States. The National Domestic Violence Hotline reports that more than 12 million men and women across the U.S. experience violence or stalking by an intimate partner. In Wisconsin in 2017, nearly 30,000 domestic violence incidents were reported to law enforcement, but it is estimated that more than three out of four incidents of domestic violence go unreported.
Domestic and sexual violence is not just a personal or community issue. It impacts workplaces too. Domestic and sexual violence negatively impacts workers' health, productivity, and attendance. The Center for Disease Control has estimated that nearly 8 million days of paid work each year is lost due to domestic violence issues. In extreme cases, abusive relationships can even lead to violence in the workplace itself. It has been estimated that nearly a third of women killed in U.S. workplaces were killed by an intimate partner.
In my former role as a human resources leader, I saw firsthand how many people experience domestic or sexual violence, and how it impacted their employment. I was fortunate to work for an employer with a large HR staff, training on handling difficult employee situations, and a variety of resources such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), a security team, and options for employees to take time off work. Using those resources, I am proud that we were able to help many of our employees seek help, or even escape violent situations.
Not every employer has all those resources. But most employers have or will have employees who need help dealing with domestic or sexual violence situations. And most employers will help those employees as best they can, when they become aware of that need for help. But how do employers become aware of their employees' need for help?
That's where the S.A.F.E. Initiative comes in. S.A.F.E., or "Safe Access for Employees," is a new program that encourages Wisconsin employers to adopt and publish policies that let their employees know it is safe to ask for help dealing with their domestic or sexual violence situation. A S.A.F.E. employer tells its employees that if they report being in a domestic or sexual violence situation, their employer will (1) not fire them for being in that situation, (2) will respect the privacy of their situation, and (3) will work to accommodate their needs, such as by giving them appropriate time off to address their situation through relocation, court proceedings, or working with law enforcement.
Most employers would take such steps regardless of whether they had a formal policy. But by formally adopting and communicating a formal policy, employees will feel supportive and are more likely to seek help.
Employers who make the commitment to not discriminate against victims of domestic or sexual violence, to respect victims' privacy, and to give victims job-protected time off to seek assistance with their situation can apply online to receive a physical and digital sticker that lets people know that they are a S.A.F.E. employer. The online application can be found at safe.wi.gov.
The website also offers resources for employers and individuals dealing with domestic and sexual violence. These resources include sample policy language and contact information for state agencies and community organizations that can provide additional assistance to employers and employees.
We might not be able to prevent all domestic and sexual violence. But we can create safe and supportive workplaces for victims and survivors. That benefits all of us.
Jesús Villa is administrator of the Equal Rights Division in the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.