It’s not every day that the Associated Industries of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Restaurant Association ask for more regulation in the workplace.
But this time, the two trade groups are backing a bill on Beacon Hill that prohibits employment discrimination against victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and other abusive behaviors. The bill also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations ― such as time off to see a therapist ― as well to take safety protections like providing someone with an unlisted work number.
Typically, businesses would oppose new rules that would increase their legal obligations, but support comes amid a tight labor market that makes retaining employees a priority. Women, especially women of color, are the primary victims of violence and stalking, and abusers often show up at their workplace.
There’s also an urgency to help women in the workforce after many dropped out during the pandemic to take on more child care and caregiving responsibilities.
“We can’t say women have left the workforce in large numbers and not say we have an obligation to help,” said Brooke Thomson, executive vice president of government affairs at AIM. “Bringing women back to the workforce and helping them succeed is a major priority for AIM members. This is one step of many that will allow us to do that.”
The bill, sponsored by state Representatives Jay Livingstone and Nika Elugardo, was introduced last year. Since then, the proposed legislation has gone through a redrafting, based on feedback from employment-side lawyers, advocacy groups, and others. The bill aims to fill the gaps in the existing law, which primarily protects employees dealing with domestic violence or abuse by providing them a leave of absence.
Andrea Kramer, the prominent Boston employment litigator who has been leading a coalition to pass the bill, said employees who are victims tend to need job protection and accommodation more than a leave of absence. They might want a phone number taken off a website, a parking spot that is well-lit or close to an entrance, or to be moved to a different office.
Even more important, they need to be protected from employers whose first instinct is to fire a worker in an abusive relationship, thinking that’s a way to protect the rest of the workplace from potential violence.
“Firing doesn’t do anything except create a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy,” Kramer said. “Employers ought to work with employees and law enforcement and put in place safety plans. They should want to encourage their employees to come forward.”
Eight states, including New York, California, and Illinois, as well as New York City and Washington. D.C., have similar anti-discrimination protections and reasonable accommodation provisions for employees ― or family members ―who are in abusive relationships. The “Protected at Work” bill in Massachusetts also extends protections to prospective hires and applies to businesses with fewer than 50 people, where many victims tend to work.
The bill was reported out favorably by the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development and is before the House Committee on Steering. Other supporters include the Alliance for Business Leadership, Employers Against Domestic Violence, Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts, Victim Rights Law Center, Jane Doe, and YWCA Boston.
Stephanie Holt, co-managing attorney at the Victim Rights Law Center, a Boston nonprofit that works with sexual assault and stalking victims, said the legislation would provide much-needed clarity on how employers should respond to employees who are victims.
Holt recalled how one client was assaulted by a colleague outside of work. She had a restraining order against the person, but the employer did nothing because no arrest had been made.
“It was an untenable situation for the employee,” Holt said.
Holt said she is not surprised business groups such as AIM support the bill.
“It takes away a lot of the ambiguity when these situations occur,” she added. “Knowing how to handle these situations can be extraordinarily helpful for employers. It’s less work on their end, it’s less work for the employee, it’s less work for everyone involved.”
Elugardo, one of the bill’s sponsors, said the proposed regulations offer protections similar to those offered employees in other classes, such as those with disabilities. In the long run, the Boston Democrat said, the bill will save employers money by increasing retention and productivity.
“This is a win-win,” she said.
But Elugardo said that during the process she was most heartened by employers wanting to lift up groups hurt most during the pandemic, such as essential workers and people of color.
“I was grateful for the culture shift,” she added. “Our employers are doing whatever they can to right that balance.”
Now it’s Beacon Hill’s turn.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.