CHICAGO —October marks Domestic Violence Awareness Month and the Illinois Department of Labor (IDOL) wants to remind Illinois employees and employers about a state law that provides protections to victims of domestic or sexual violence from discrimination in the workplace.
The Victims’ Economic Security and Safety Act, VESSA, allows employees who are victims of domestic or sexual violence or who have a family or household member who is a victim of domestic or sexual violence with up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave in any 12-month period to seek medical attention, legal assistance and counseling.
“Domestic Violence Awareness Month gives the Illinois Department of Labor an opportunity to highlight VESSA, a significant labor law specifically designed to protect victims of domestic or sexual violence from employment discrimination. IDOL is the governmental agency responsible for enforcing VESSA and we are committed to continually raising awareness and understanding of the law, so employees and employers know what a victim’s working rights are if domestic violence carries over into their workplace,” said Catherine Shannon, Director, Illinois Department of Labor.
Governor Rod R. Blagojevich signed VESSA into law on Aug. 25, 2003, making Illinois one of 11 states that have statutes or ordinances providing non-discrimination or leave provisions specifically to victims of domestic or sexual violence. For many victims of domestic and sexual violence, abuse experienced at home often follows them to the workplace when they are harassed by threatening phone calls and emails. The employee may become less productive due to abuse-related stress or may be unable to work due to physical injuries. VESSA aims to provide employees with the financial independence necessary to leave abusive situations, without fear of losing their jobs.
Gov. Blagojevich recently announced the Illinois Department of Human Services’ new, statewide Domestic Violence Helpline: 1-877-TO-END-DV, a toll-free, 24-hour, 7- days–a-week, multi-lingual service that links victims to domestic violence services. The helpline is a confidential number that functions as a clearinghouse for domestic violence services and information. Callers will be connected to staff known as Victim Information and Referral Advocates (VIRAS). These trained advocates will link survivors to domestic violence services in their communities including shelter, counseling, legal services, and partner abuse intervention programs. Helpline advocates may also identify non-traditional domestic violence services, provide safety planning or tips, and help survivors explore service options. Bi-lingual and bi-cultural Spanish speaking VIRAS are always available and interpretation services for more than 170 languages are immediately accessible to address the needs of other non-English speaking callers.
IDOL is working with the Illinois Department of Human Services (DHS) to highlight the state's domestic violence awareness efforts this month. IDOL’s awareness campaign will include the new helpline number in multi-lingual radio Public Service Announcements (PSAs) in Spanish, Polish, Ukrainian, Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese) and Hindi/Urdu. IDOL will also conduct VESSA training seminars in several cities statewide and will issue reminders about VESSA to hundreds of domestic violence agencies and shelters, community organizations, employment and training centers, legal assistance providers, social service agencies and local police departments.
According to VESSA, an employee who is a victim of domestic or sexual violence may take unpaid leave to obtain medical attention or counseling for physical or psychological injuries, participate in safety planning, including relocation to increase the safety of the victim, and seek legal assistance to ensure the health and safety of the victim. Employers are prohibited from discharging, harassing or otherwise discriminating against any individual with respect to compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because the individual is, or is perceived to be, a victim of domestic or sexual violence, or exercises his or her rights under the Act. Employers with 50 or more employees are subject to VESSA including the State of Illinois and any unit of local government or school district.
If an employer is found to have violated VESSA, IDOL may require the employer to pay damages equal to the amount of wages, employment benefits, or other compensation denied or lost with interest, or provide equitable relief, such as reinstatement, promotion, reasonable accommodations, and attorney’s fees. 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 an order is entered.
Any employee who believes his or her rights have been violated may file a complaint with IDOL within three years after the alleged violation occurs by calling (312) 793-6797, or by visiting www.state.il.us/agency/idol.