How a Pennsylvania Domestic Violence Bill Became Anti-Worker and Anti-Survivor


Introduced in September in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, HB 1796 was written to protect survivors of domestic violence, crime, or abuse from having police calls requesting emergency assistance used as cause for eviction or penalization under certain municipal ordinances.

At the time, the bill was seemingly non-controversial and garnered bipartisan support. It seemed on the fast track for approval through the assembly after the bill passed the state house unanimously in January.

But as Bryce Covert at ThinkProgress recently reported, what was a well-intentioned and straightforward bill meant to strengthen protections for survivors became a “political football” when, earlier this month, state senators added an amendment to the bill preventing local governments from passing new work leave policies.

The controversial amendment would prohibit municipalities from enacting mandates requiring employers to provide paid or unpaid leave, such as vacation time or paid sick days, to their employees.

While the preemptive language would unevenly affect all Pennsylvania workers, there’s distinct concern among women’s health experts in the commonwealth, who believe it would have far greater ramifications for the survivors HB 1796 intended to help.

“It did certainly cause us pause that [a] really positive protection for all constituents in Pennsylvania, and especially for domestic violence victims, would have something so controversial attached to it, which actually is negative, taking something away from constituents,” Peg Dierkers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence (PCADV), told RH Reality Check.

Advocates say paid or unpaid work leave affords domestic violence survivors the opportunity to obtain crucial legal or medical services without fearing job-related repercussions. Pennsylvania lawmakers, then, are not only potentially stalling a first-of-its-kind bill that would strengthen housing protections for survivors—they’re also further threatening survivors’ livelihood and safety. 

The Importance of Work Leave for Domestic Violence Survivors

Proposed by state Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery County), HB 1796 was developed in response to the case of Lakisha Briggs, a mother of two who was evicted from her Norristown home last year after several police calls responding to domestic assaults against her were counted as strikes toward the borough’s discretionary Rental License Ordinance. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the Borough of Norristown on Briggs’ behalf, exposing a disturbing trend of domestic violence survivors experiencing eviction due to similar nuisance ordinances in other cities.

PCADV, which worked with Rep. Stephens to develop HB 1796’s original language, released a letter on March 12 urging the removal of the amendment, stating it “eliminates employment protection opportunities for thousands of victims across Pennsylvania. … PCADV fears that without access to unpaid and/or paid leave, victims will be less likely to seek services and/or to flee their abuser—which puts victims and their children at risk of continued violence.”

HB 1796, in its amended form, did not receive one Democratic vote when it passed the senate committee two weeks ago. It was laid on the table for second consideration March 17.

What legislators championing the amendment don’t seem to understand is that survivors use work leave days for a multitude of reasons, often to access services like legal counseling, therapy, or health care related to the abuse that aren’t available outside of work hours. For instance, a domestic violence survivor may need to file for a protection from abuse (PFA) order against her abuser, which can involve several all-day trips to court, or she may need to visit a direct service agency to help find new housing so she’s able to leave her abusive situation.

Or, as Molly Callahan of Women Against Abuse noted, she may need to go to a doctor to get a broken arm set, which would also require follow-up visits. “It could also be counseling … for domestic violence,” said Callahan, legal center director for the Philadelphia-based direct services and advocacy agency. “It could be that they’re going to take their children to counseling who have witnessed some of this violence.”

“We often do see victims, once they hear that they’re protected and can’t be fired for taking off to go to court, just the relief is palpable,” she said.

Most of these services, though, operate on a 9-to-5, Monday through Friday schedule, limiting accessibility for many survivors. For example, uninsured survivors relying on the sliding fee care offered by SouthEast Lancaster Health Services in the city of Lancaster—which hasn’t passed a work leave policy—can make Saturday appointments between 8 a.m. and 12 p.m. at only one of its three clinics. After-hour appointments are available until 8 p.m., but only on two days at two of its respective site.

But, as PCADV’s letter indicates, if HB 1796 were to pass with the preemption amendment intact, those services would become even more unreachable for survivors, especially those who work low-wage and part-time positions. It also further jeopardizes employment for survivors who may not hold positions with work leave folded into their benefits, said Callahan.

According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, victims of severe domestic violence miss nearly eight million days of paid work each year, with between 25 and 50 percent of survivors reporting losing employment “at least in part due to domestic violence.” The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit also reports that 40 percent of low-income workers are without any type of job-protected paid leave, including vacation, sick, and personal days.

While domestic violence affects survivors of all income levels, the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice (NIJ) found that women in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods are more than twice as likely to experience intimate partner violence. The severity of that violence is also increased for survivors living in financially insecure households, the NIJ reports.

“It is the most vulnerable workers” who would be most affected by the amendment, “those who don’t have paid sick leave, who don’t have any days off already, and who often times have families they’re supporting and they’re the sole support of their families,” Callahan told RH Reality Check. “Now they’re in this terrible situation where there’s domestic violence, and they’re trying to get help. This is just another barrier and another worry that is put on them.”

She added, “With this preemption, they’re either not going to be able to [get help] or they’re going to feel that they can’t, so they’ll end up not going through with what they need.”

ALEC Ties

According to the Huffington Post, Republican Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., the local government committee chair, said he attached the amendment because two similar stand-alone pieces of legislation, HB 1807 and HB 1960, failed to move through the Pennsylvania house.

As noted by ThinkProgress, those failed bills were part of a string of similar preemption laws popping up across the country—nine of which passed within the last three years—powered by the “free-enterprise” group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Pennsylvania Rep. Seth Grove (R-York County), who introduced HB 1807 and HB 1960, is a member of ALEC’s Communications and Technology Task Force. (Rep. Stephens has also been said to be an ALEC member.)

Sen. Eichelberger’s office did not return RH Reality Check’s repeated requests for comment.

The Grandfather Clause

The HB 1796 amendment includes a grandfather clause: City policies already in effect across the state, such as those in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, that allow for domestic violence-related work leave in some respect would remain in effect. Philadelphia’s “Entitlement to Leave Due to Domestic or Sexual Violence” ordinance, enacted in 2009, allows survivors at companies with 50 or more employees to take up to eight work weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period for services related to intimate partner violence; at a company with fewer than 50 employees, the allotment is four work weeks.

Still, even with HB 1796’s grandfather clause, the amendment only serves to ensure protections will remain disparate for workers across Pennsylvania.

“If I live in Philadelphia, I have some unpaid leave to go to court on domestic violence issues, but if I live in Harrisburg, I don’t,” said PCADV’s Peg Dierkers. “That seems inherently unfair, if not unethical. Not good public policy.”

Rep. Stephens told RH Reality Check the stakeholders wanted the preemptive language added to HB 1796 while it was in the house, but he had them to hold off. The week the language was added, he said, he went to the stakeholders “who fought” for the amendment and asked whether they’d consider a statewide exception for domestic violence survivors when the bill is up for second consideration. They agreed, he said.

[M]y biggest concern with the [added] language was you have a situation where one municipality has these protections in place for domestic violence victims, and that language would preclude every other municipality from enacting those protections if they wanted to. That’s why I went to those stakeholders,” he said. “There’s still an opportunity to get those protections in place for domestic violence victims.”

Dierkers said it’s her understanding that those stakeholders who pushed for the amendment included restaurant owners and small business associations—some of the same participants who lobbied against paid sick leave legislation in Philadelphia, passed twice by the city council and vetoed both times by Mayor Michael Nutter.

Does HB 1796 Have a Future?

Once the Pennsylvania General Assembly reconvenes on March 31, the senate version of HB 1796 will enter the appropriations committee for consideration. During that time, Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-District 7), the committee’s minority chair, and other senate democrats plan to introduce language stripping the preemption amendment, according to Ben Waxman, spokesperson for Sen. Hughes.

Waxman said Sen. Hughes and other democrats feel it’s “inappropriate” to add controversial work leave language to a “non-controversial” bill meant to protect domestic violence survivors. If HB 1796 does make it to the full senate floor with the amendment, Sen. Hughes and his fellow democrats will again introduce language to remove it, he noted.

“It’s the wrong way to approach [the topic],” Waxman said. If proponents of the senate’s amendment want to push preemptive legislation, “it should stand on its own merits and not be attached to a bill on domestic violence.”

Much like Callahan and Dierkers, Waxman is also uncertain of HB 1796’s once-confident future, and whether it will move in the senate at all—which, he said, “is a big problem.”

“I hope that some compromise could be reached so the bill continues to move forward,” said Rep. Stephens. “I think there’s still an opportunity to make sure domestic violence victims are not disaffected by that amendment, and I just hope that amendment doesn’t derail the bill.”

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