When working from home isn’t safe: domestic violence and remote work

Natasha, April 30, 2020

Domestic Violence and Working from Home

A surge in domestic violence has become an unfortunate reality of the pandemic and one that employers need to pay attention to. Shelters and help lines have seen a drastic spike in domestic abuse victims who are reaching out for help since the stay-at-home orders were implemented. Employers have legal obligations to protect employees from workplace violence, including domestic violence.

COVID-19 means that many employees are working from home. But what if that very home puts them at risk of domestic violence? As I read social media posts publicly shaming the parents of kids playing outside, or scolding someone for going for a walk, rollerblade or bike ride, I pause and think: has the author stopped to consider that the environment inside the home from which those people come may not be a safe one? Maybe it’s one where the risk of harm inside the home is even greater than the risk of COVID-19 lurking outside.

The stresses of the pandemic, unemployment and financial strain create a perfect storm to incite domestic abuse and violence. It takes many forms. Beyond physical abuse, emotional and psychological abuse as well as economic abuse are weapons used by abusers to control their victims. Abusers often try to isolate the victim from others to make it harder for them to seek help. Social distancing and directives to stay home have exacerbated that obstacle.

Legal Duties and Job-Protected Leaves

Employers cannot just look at this from the sidelines. Working remotely means that the home has likely become the workplace. The Occupational Health and Safety Act (“OHSA”) defines the workplace as “any land, premises, location or thing at, upon, in or near which a worker works”.

Employers must take steps to protect employees from workplace violence and domestic violence is considered a form of workplace violence. The OHSA also specifically speaks to the employer’s duties to protect employees from domestic violence in the workplace and says that:

Employers who are aware of, or who ought reasonably to be aware of, domestic violence that would likely expose a worker to physical injury in the workplace must take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances to protect the worker.

The Employment Standards Act, 2000 (“ESA”) provides a job protected leave for victims of domestic or sexual violence. Employees who have worked with their employer for at least 13 weeks are entitled to domestic or sexual violence leave. The leave is for up to 10 days and 15 weeks in a calendar year of time off when an employee or their child has experienced or received threats of domestic violence. The first five days must be paid.

In Ontario, employees are eligible for domestic or sexual violence leave if they need to:

  • seek medical attention for themselves or their child(ren) because of a physical or psychological injury or disability caused by the domestic or sexual violence
  • access victim services
  • obtain psychological or other professional counselling
  • move temporarily or permanently; or
  • seek legal or law enforcement assistance

Similar provisions exist for federally regulated employees as well.

What Employers Can Do

As an employer, what precautions can you take to protect victims of domestic violence, especially when working from home during the pandemic? Here are a few:

  1. Offer help – People are often reluctant to “interfere” in what they consider to be a private matter. If you have concerns about an employee’s safety, take all reasonable precautions to help protect them, including calling the police if necessary.
  2. Make it part of the conversation – Talk openly about domestic violence so employees know that it’s safe to talk about it and ask for help. Circulate a brochure from a domestic violence organization.
  3. Educate managers and supervisors on your policy, signs of domestic violence and steps to take to protect employees.
  4. Review your workplace violence policies to ensure they contain provisions about domestic violence and provide for safe reporting and individual safety plans.
  5. Circulate your policy, highlighting that the employer has a duty to take all reasonable precautions to protect employees and assist in circumstances of domestic violence. Provide some examples of assistance you can offer.
  6. Keep regular contact with daily video calls, frequent team chats and one-on-one conversations.
  7. Be alert to signs that the employee is in an abusive situation. For example: the employee stops using video during check-ins, wears more makeup than usual during online meetings, stops participating altogether, or has had a former domestic partner suddenly moving back into their home perhaps claiming to have COVID-19 and needing a place to isolate.
  8. Be mindful of different types of abuse. Psychological and emotional abuse can be very damaging. It is not just physical wounds that cause harm.
  9. Communicate a safe word or phrase that victims can use to signal a need for help (something that would not be obvious to abuser). Using “dummy” email addresses for safe reporting can also be helpful.
  10. Identify resources for help such as domestic violence help lines, support groups and shelters as well as employee assistance programs and the police. endingviolencecanada.org/getting-help/ provides a list of resources across Canada.
  11. Inform employees of available leaves – educate them about the domestic or sexual violence leave.
  12. Meet the duty to accommodate, such as by providing a leave to seek shelter or support.

Employers’ legal obligations to protect employees working remotely from domestic violence has become increasingly pressing because of the pandemic. However, there are many employees who worked remotely before COVID-19 and many – perhaps more – will continue to do so once the stay-at-home orders are lifted. Staying alert to these issues and implementing the steps above will help you protect employees and meet your legal duties to protect remote workers from violence at home.

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