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Op-ed: The Legislature Needs to Address Domestic Violence

For victims of intimate-partner violence, there is no place in their daily routine that is safe, even – and often especially – while they are at work.

The number of those affected is anything but small.  Twenty percent of our country’s full-time employees have been abused by a current or former partner at some point in their lives, and most survivors say it negatively affected their employment.  Injuries force them to take time off; others lose raises or promotions; and up to half quit because they fear for their safety.

An August report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics underscored why so many are justified in that worry.  It found that the homicide rate in 2019 for women in the workplace was almost three times higher than it was for men.  If findings from previous studies hold true, a third of those women were killed by someone they knew, and in most of those cases, that person was, or had been, an intimate partner.

Although many victims are forced to stop working, that rarely solves the underlying problem.  Indeed, they often become even more financially reliant on their abuser, because they feel they have nowhere else to go.

We believe it’s time we give them the resources needed to regain their independence, which is why we are pre-filing legislation that would make them and victims of sexual assault and stalking eligible for unemployment insurance benefits.

With October set aside annually as Domestic Violence Awareness Month, now is an ideal time to talk about why this lifeline is so important.  Next year’s legislative session will be the fourth time the bill will be considered by the General Assembly, but we feel increasingly confident that 2022 will be the year Kentucky joins nearly 40 other states and territories already providing this benefit.

We testified in support of our bill last month before a receptive House and Senate committee and are hoping to see this early bipartisan support grow until the legislation becomes law.

Those who helped write it include the Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs and other supporters who work with or advocate for victims of gender-based violence.  We all believe this approach would have an immediate and profound impact.

To qualify, victims would have to submit sworn statements and/or documentation from law enforcement, the courts, domestic violence programs, attorneys or their clergy.

Benefits would be paid from the state’s pooled account, not employers’ contributions, and other states’ experiences show the impact on the unemployment insurance system would be easily manageable.  In Connecticut, for example, the cost is less $170,000 a year, and in Montana, it’s not quite third of that.

The bill also calls for increased training at the Kentucky Office of Unemployment Insurance, and that office would also compile annual reports so future legislatures can gauge the impact of this new program and where it can be improved.

The need for this is unfortunately all too clear, given that the commonwealth is among the leading states when measuring rates of intimate-partner violence.  COVID-19 has undoubtedly made matters worse because of increased isolation due to quarantines and added economic uncertainty.

State are confirming that fear by reporting record domestic violence-related deaths since the pandemic began.  Ohio reported this month that fatalities in these cases went up 20 percent this past fiscal year – and were 62 percent higher than just two years ago.  In Texas, these fatalities went up a fourth over a year’s time.

As the General Assembly considers our legislation, it is worth pointing out that Kentucky has enacted a slate of laws designed to help keep victims safe.  In the last few years alone, we extended protective orders to include those in dating situations or who have been sexually assaulted or stalked, and we have given victims more anonymity by keeping their addresses private on voter registration lists.

We believe our bill is the next logical step, because it would give more people an opportunity to leave an abusive relationship while knowing they have the resources to build a better, safer life.

As lawmakers, we must recognize the broad impact that abuse has on our families, and provide lifelines whenever and however we can.  The benefits in our bill far outweigh the costs, and they would give many hope at a time when they have none.  For those facing an uncertain future, the positive impact would be immeasurable.

-Samara Heavrin and Nima Kulkarni serve in the Kentucky State House of Representatives

-Photo: Nima Kulkarni

Slideshow Images & Captions: 
Samara Heavrin