Domestic Violence Leave a Small Cost to Employers but Priceless to Victims

Despite critics’ claims, family violence leave would cost only 0.02% of existing payrolls and be offset by benefits such as improved productivity.

When Simon Earle decided to make five days’ domestic violence leave available to his 30 employees, he wasn’t concerned about the extra cost to his payroll.

As it turns out, he had good reason. In more than three years, only one person has used it – for one day – even though it is open to victims and perpetrators.

Earle heads up METL (Maritime Employees Training Ltd), a non-profit joint venture between maritime employers and the Maritime Union of Australia to train seafarers. “It is letting everybody know – women in particular – that this is our stand,” he says.

“We want to stop this issue and it is part of our strategy to get more women into the workplace ... which is going to change some of the archaic attitudes that might exist in certain workplaces,” he says.

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The cost of paid domestic violence leave is important because it is one of the key arguments against its proposed inclusion by the Fair Work Commission into awards that would affect 1.5 million workers.

During an ongoing commission review of modern awards, federal government ministers and some employer groups have argued that domestic violence is a social problem, not an employer responsibility, and that it is too expensive, especially for small employers.

In December, finance minister Mathias Cormann said paid domestic violence leave would have an impact on international competitiveness, while the minster for women and employment, Michaelia Cash, said last May that the cost could act as a “perverse disincentive” to employ women.

The commission is not likely to decide on the issue until at least the end of 2017 but, in the meantime, growing numbers of employers are already including domestic violence leave into their workplace policies and workplace agreements.

In the private sector, more than half of organisations (of 100 employees or more) offer access to some sort of leave to victims of domestic violence, 12% have specific paid domestic violence leave and 3.8% offer unpaid domestic violence leave.

Employers offering paid domestic violence leave – to help employees meet legal, medical, counselling, relocation and other administrative commitments – include NAB, Telstra, Virgin Australia, PwC and some public sector organisations.

One employer organisation lobbying against the leave is the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI), which claims it could cost employers $205m per year – compared with a union-backed figure of about $11.8m per year.

This massive discrepancy in cost derives from ACCI’s modelling, which assumes that 25% of female and 10% of male workers would be accessing the leave each year. The union case expected 2% of female workers and 1% of male workers.

The experience of employers who already have the leave in place is that even the union figures may be a little on the high side.

According to a report by the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work, only about 1.5% of female employees and around 0.3% of male employees are likely to utilise paid domestic leave provisions in any given year.

Only 0.001% of Telstra’s 32,000-person workforce has used the leave in two years (22 employees, with an average 2.3 days per incident).

At Surf Coast council at Torquay, in Victoria, 0.004% of the 354 employees have accessed it over three years. The council offers up to 20 days of paid domestic violence leave.

The Surf Coast shire council mayor, Brian McKiterick, says the cost has been a mere $2,324: “While this is a small cost to council, it is an invaluable commitment to our staff.”

Both the council and METL are among 80 employers accredited by the White Ribbon organisation, which campaigns against violence to women.

The White Ribbon chief executive, Libby Davies, says a further 125 employers are going through the accreditation process, which requires a separate domestic leave that does not take away from other sorts of leave.

Davies says the reason employers are offering specific leave to victims is because they recognise that domestic violence is a community problem and that all sectors of the community, including business, should play a part in reducing the numbers of people suffering family violence.

“A person experiencing family and domestic violence cannot divorce completely the problem from work and home and it often manifests in the workplace in many different ways,” she says.

“They do rely of the safety of the workplace to assist them to access the support that they need.”

One in four Australian women has experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or former partner, according to Relationships Australia. On average, one woman is killed every week as a result of intimate partner violence.

In January, Teresa Bradford became the fifth woman to die as the result of violence this year, according to Destroy The Joint’s Counting Dead Women project, which tallied 71 deaths in 2016. Bradford was killed by her estranged husband in her Gold Coast home, while he was on bail for assaulting and choking her.

NAB goes a step further in its efforts to help, offering support and one-off grants of up to $2,500 to affected customers who are channelled from its financial counselling line to the welfare organisation Kildonan Care.

“It is for those customers who are in absolute crisis situations, says NAB’S general manager of corporate social responsibility, Jodi Geddes. She says the bank has helped with 112 cases since the customer policy was introduced last year.

Since 2013, NAB has also offered domestic violence support policy to its 35,000 employees, including uncapped paid leave for victims. Support includes strategies to help victims travel safely to and from work, provision of parking, blocking calls and emails and specialised consultants. Geddes says about 70 employees have been helped over three years, with about 100 days leave taken in 2016.

While the Centre for Future Work estimates a universal extension of 10 days paid leave would cost the whole economy “a modest” $80m to $120m per year (0.02% of existing payrolls), costs to employers are likely to be “largely or completely” offset by benefits such as an associated reduced turnover and improved productivity.

Violence against women by their partners costs the economy a total $12.6bn per year – or close to 1% of GDP, according to PwC.

Critics of domestic violence leave, such as the Australian Industry Group, have also complained that under the proposal of 10 days leave put forward by the Australian Council of Trade Unions, employers would also be paying the wages of perpetrators while they were taking leave to sort out legal and other related issues.

At METL, this is part of the solution. Earle says that while his organisation has a zero-tolerance policy for violence at work, it would pay out the leave to perpetrators who were using it to get help to stop the violence.

“If it is an issue that men are seeking help for, then they need to be supported so they can help themselves, help their families and show other men that it is possible to turn that around.”

This article was originally published by The Guardian.