There are few federal laws that require employers to give employees leave of absence. However, many states have enacted their own laws that provide employees with additional leave rights. In June 2013, New Jersey joined 12 other states to implement leave laws for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The result is the New Jersey Security and Financial Empowerment Act (SAFE Act).
What is the New Jersey Security and Financial Empowerment Act?
The aftermath of domestic violence or sexual assault can be very traumatic for an individual. According to the CDC, more than 1 in 3 women and nearly 1 in 4 men have experienced sexual violence at some point in their lives. New Jersey lawmakers recognized the need for employers to give leave of absence to employees who have been affected by these heinous acts. As a result, The New Jersey Security and Financial Empowerment Act was enacted October 1, 2013.
The SAFE act enables employees to take an unpaid leave of absence to address circumstances resulting from domestic violence or sexual assault situations. More specifically, it provides an employee with up to 20 days of unpaid leave per 12-month period, as long as they been employed by the employer for a minimum of 12 months and worked a minimum of 1000 hours in the 12-month period immediately preceding the leave. An employee can also take leave if their child, parent, spouse, domestic or civil union partner was the victim of domestic violence or sexual assault situations. The law applies to both public and private employers with over 25 employees.
Reasons for Leave
Once approved for leave, the employee must take the leave within the 12 months of the date of the violence. Additionally, the leave must be specifically related to the violence. The following situations are acceptable reasons for leave of absence:
- Seeking medical attention for physical injuries or psychological help.
- Acquire services from a victim services organization.
- Obtain psychological counseling.
- Participate in safety planning, relocating or other actions to increase the safety of the employee or to ensure economic security.
- Seek legal assistance to ensure health and safety or to participate in civil or criminal proceedings related to or derived from a domestic violence or a sexually violent offense.
- Attend, participate in or prepare for a civil or criminal court proceeding.
Under the Act, the employer may require that the employee substantiate the violent or sexually violent offense. Acceptable documentation can include any of the following:
- A restraining order.
- A letter from the prosecutor.
- A document that shows the conviction of the abuser.
- A medical report.
- A certified document from a domestic violence specialist or a rape crisis center.
- A letter from a religious organization that has provided services to the victim.
New Developments in The New Jersey Security and Financial Empowerment Act?
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy recently expanded the Security and Financial Empowerment Act by signing amendments that support employees’ rights into law.
The new legislation expands the definition of family members to include parent-in-laws, sister, brother, grandparent, grandchild and any other individual that is related by blood or that is considered to be the equivalent of family.
Previously employers were allowed to required employees to use accrued paid leave for leave of absence under the SAFE Act. The new legislation prevents employers from requiring this.
Additionally, employees are eligible to qualify for Family Leave Insurance. Family leave insurance gives the victims means to support themselves during the leave of absence. The program provides employees benefits paid at rate of two-thirds of their pay, to a maximum of $650.
Protections for employees
Most importantly, the safe act prevents discrimination, harassment and retaliation against covered employees and provides for legal action if an employee’s rights have been violated. Employees have one year from the date of the violation to file suit and seek damages. Potential remedies may include: reinstatement, lost wages and benefits, an injunction to halt continued violations as well as attorneys’ fees and costs. Additionally, the court may assess fines up to $2,000 for the first violation and up to $5,000 for subsequent violations.
If you feel that you have been discriminated against by your employer, it is important to contact an attorney who has experience in defending employees rights under The New Jersey Security and Financial Empowerment Act. Swartz Swidler LLC has defended a number of these cases with positive results. Contact us today by filling out the contact form, and a representative from our firm will be in contact with you to discuss your case.