CHICAGO – Fueled by Governor Rod R. Blagojevich’s proclamation of October as Illinois Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the Illinois Department of Labor (IDOL) today launched a statewide awareness campaign to educate the public about protecting victims of domestic violence against discrimination in the workplace. The Victims’ Economic Security and Safety Act (VESSA), provides employees who are victims of domestic or sexual violence, and their family or household members with job security in the workplace, the financial independence necessary to leave abusive situations, and 12 workweeks of unpaid leave in any 12-month period to seek medical attention, legal advice and counseling.
“I have proclaimed October as Illinois Domestic Violence Awareness Month because it is not enough simply to have laws on the books protecting their rights. While it’s an invaluable first step, we must also create public awareness, and inform victims about the services available to help them through their time of need,” said Gov. Blagojevich. “No one should lack the help and support needed to recover from violence or abuse.”
Although several states protect victims from employment discrimination under certain circumstances, Illinois is the only state to enact a general prohibition of employment discrimination against victims of domestic or sexual violence. Rep. Patricia Bailey (D-Chicago) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Chicago) were the chief sponsors of this legislation, which passed the Illinois General Assembly unanimously. Gov. Blagojevich signed the VESSA Act into law on August 25, 2003, effective immediately.
The Illinois Department of Labor will partner with the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA), which recently received $1.3 million in federal funding towards its domestic violence prevention services, and the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS), which deals with 66-multi-service domestic violence programs and offers 24-hour crisis hotlines, counseling and advocacy.
For many victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, abuse experienced at home follows them to the workplace when he or she is harassed by threatening phone calls and emails. Eventually the employee becomes less productive due to abuse-related stress or is absent because of physical injuries. In fact, businesses reportedly forfeit nearly $100 million annually in lost wages due to sick leave, non-productivity and absenteeism related to domestic violence, according the U.S. Department of Human Services. The VESSA Act and awareness campaign aims to both bring these issues to the forefront and facilitate employer-employee strategies for maintaining safe workplaces.
IDOL will educate and train employers and employees about the economic and emotional consequences of domestic violence and provide awareness materials and resources to service providers and organizations assisting domestic violence victims. Along with the Illinois Department of Human Resources’ Bureau of Domestic & Sexual Violence Prevention, the agency will conduct five initial training sessions across the state: two in Chicago and one in West Chicago, DeKalb, and Mount Vernon.
According to the law, an employee, family or household member who is a victim of domestic violence may take VESSA leave to seek medical attention for or to recover from physical or psychological injuries, obtain victim services, psychological or other counseling, participate in safety planning including temporary or permanent relocation to ensure the future safety of the victim, and seek legal assistance to ensure the health and safety of the victim. Leave may be taken intermittently or on a reduced work schedule.
Employers with 50 or more employees including the State of Illinois and any unit of local government or school district are prohibited from discharging, harassing or otherwise discriminating against any employee with respect to compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, or retaliating against an employee in any form or manner.
If any employer is found to have violated the Act, the Department may require the employer to pay damages equal to the amount of wages, salary, employment benefits, public assistance, or other compensation denied or lost with interest, provide equitable relief, including but not limited to, reinstatement, promotion and reasonable accommodations and pay reasonable attorney’s fees, expert witness fees, and other costs of the action. Additionally, the employer is liable to pay a penalty of 1% per calendar day to the employee for each day of delay in paying the damages, if the employer fails to do so within 30 days after the order is entered.
The Illinois Department of Labor administers and enforces the provisions of VESSA, by conducting investigations in connection with the administration and enforcement of this Act. Any employee who believes his or her rights have been violated may file a complaint within three years after the alleged violation occurs with the IDOL at (312) 793-6797, or by visiting http://www.state.il.us/agency/idol.