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Mass. Senate passes domestic abuse jobs bill

STEVE LEBLANC

The Massachusetts Senate unanimously approved a bill last Thursday designed to protect the jobs of victims of domestic violence, stalking or sexual assault, but delayed action on a second bill aimed at bolstering victims’ housing rights.

The approved bill would require businesses to give employees who are victims of domestic violence up to 15 days off work, paid or unpaid, if they are trying to get out of a violent situation or seeking medical or legal help.

Workers would have to use up all of their sick days and vacation days first.

The bill would require victims to offer some kind of proof of their status, such as a restraining order, police report or medical documentation. Employers would have to keep that information private. The bill would exempt smaller businesses with fewer than 50 workers.

The bill passed on a 36-0 vote. It now heads to the House.

Fear of losing a job is a barrier to escaping violence, especially for mothers who need to support themselves and their young children, said Maureen Gallagher, policy director for Jane Doe Inc., a domestic violence advocacy group.

“It’s often an issue for victims if they need to go to court,” she said. “(The bill) provides for individuals to have some time off to do those things without jeopardizing their employment.”

John Regan, executive vice president for Associated Industries of Massachusetts, said the group agrees more needs to be done to help victims of domestic violence. He said the group worked with advocates to craft legislation that could win the backing of business leaders.

Regan said the legislation also has protections for business owners, including leaving it up to employers to decide whether to offer paid or unpaid leaves of absence. Requiring proof of abuse will help dissuade workers from taking advantage of the proposed law, he said.

“We wanted to make sure that the incidents for which any leave would be taken were very clearly spelled out,” he said.

The Senate postponed until May 20 debate on a second bill that would allow victims of domestic violence to break a lease without facing a penalty if they needed to flee an abusive household.

The bill also would prohibit landlords from ending a lease, failing to renew a lease or refusing to enter into a new lease based solely on a person’s status as a victim of domestic violence.

Landlords still would be able to evict tenants based on other lawful grounds, such as failure to pay rent.

The legislation ran into opposition from rental property owners who said the bill would tie their hands and leave them vulnerable to legal action from other tenants in their buildings.

Skip Schloming, executive director of the Small Property Owners Association, said landlords don’t have a problem with allowing victims of domestic violence to break a lease.

But he said landlords are worried about being unable to evict a household where there is domestic violence — especially if that violence results in persistent, loud arguments that disturb the peace of other tenants.

Those other tenants could sue landlords for failing to provide for the “quiet enjoyment” of their apartments as required by law, Schloming said.

“This bill would literally, if there were these long ongoing loud fights, prevent us from evicting a victim household,” Schloming said. “Our main problem is that our good tenants would move out.”

Gallagher defended the bill saying that fear of homelessness is another daunting hurdle for victims of domestic violence.

Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei, R-Wakefield, asked for the week’s delay to give lawmakers time to respond to the concerns of property owners and work out a compromise.

Associated Press