The Maryland General Assembly finally took steps to ensure working Marylanders don’t have to choose between their health and a day’s pay by passing House Bill 1, the Maryland Healthy Working Families Act (2017), earlier this year. Although Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the bill, there is clearly enough support — both in the public and in Annapolis — to override the veto and give 700,000 people across Maryland access to earned sick leave. But in a last-ditch effort to defeat the bill, opponents argue that the bill compromises the privacy and safety of victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. This argument is without merit and only seeks to undermine important legislation on the backs of these victims, who in most cases will only benefit from the ability to take life-saving steps without fear of losing their paychecks or their employment.
As leading statewide advocates for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, the Women’s Law Center of Maryland, the House of Ruth Maryland, the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, and the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence not only disagree with opponents’ unfounded concerns but continue to support and advocate for the enactment of sick and safe leave, as we have done for the past seven years. Our organizations provide legal representation or advocacy services across the state to victims of domestic violence and survivors of sexual assault, and we regularly work with clients who are forced to take unpaid leave in order to appear in court or seek other services necessary for their safety and recovery. We wholeheartedly support HB1 in its entirety, and the safe leave provisions in particular.
This bill would permit employees to earn leave and use time off for certain purposes, including if “the absence from work is necessary due to domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking committed against the employee or the employee’s family member” and the leave is being used for certain purposes such as obtaining victim services. Opponents have expressed concern that the bill “further victimizes these women by giving them no choice but to disclose deeply personal and private information.” To the contrary, HB1 would benefit survivors and would be a welcome improvement in the state’s response to sexual assault and domestic violence.
While we appreciate the concerns for victim privacy, our experience has shown women are too frequently forced to forgo appearing at court for protective order hearings out of fear of losing their employment or earnings. In other words, victims often are forced to choose their financial and employment stability over their own personal physical safety. HB1 would empower those women by giving them the option of telling their employers and securing their safety without risking their financial security. Some may choose not to take earned leave because they do not want to tell their employer they are victims, but others will choose to provide this information and will welcome the option to use earned leave. Moreover, the bill itself contains provisions to balance these concerns. An employer may require verification about the reasons that earned leave is used only under certain controlled circumstances. Furthermore, in many cases it is in the victim’s best interest to involve their employer when a protective order is in place, so that the workplace community is able to properly react should a respondent violate the order.
Advocates against sexual assault and domestic violence believe that HB1, as passed by the General Assembly, would be a step forward. The current opposition is simply a last gasp attempt to use victims of domestic violence and sexual assault to derail the will of a majority of Marylanders who support earned sick and safe leave.
Michelle Daugherty Siri (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive director of The Women's Law Center of Maryland. Contributors to this piece include: Dorothy J. Lennig, director of the Domestic Violence Legal Clinic at House of Ruth Maryland; Lisae C. Jordan, executive director and counsel at the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault; and Darren Mitchell, interim executive director of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence.