The New Jersey Security and Financial Empowerment Act, or SAFE, took effect on October 1. SAFE — which authorizes unpaid leave for victims of domestic or sexual violence — affects the vast majority of employers in New Jersey. And yet, despite its reach, says Kelly Ann Bird, the act got little media coverage.
Bird, an employment attorney at Gibbons P.C. in Newark, will be one of four speakers at the NJBIA’s “Complying with State & Federal Family & Disability Leave Laws” on Wednesday, November 13, at 8:30 a.m. at Forsgate Country Club in Monroe. Also speaking are M. Trevor Lyons of Connell Foley; Kathleen Connelly of Lindabury, McCormick, Estabrook & Cooper; and Ian Meklinsky of Fox Rothschild. Cost: $169. Visit www.njbia.org/events.
The SAFE Act allows employees who have worked at least 1,000 hours for at least 12 months at a company to take a 20-day unpaid leave if they, a spouse or domestic partner, or child is the victim of domestic violence or a sexual assault. The act affects every New Jersey business that employs at least 25. Employers can ask for documentation, such as an emergency room receipt or a copy of the police report, and are allowed to offer SAFE leave concurrently with paid leave under the Family Leave Act.
Bird, who grew up in Monmouth County, earned her bachelor’s in classics from the College of Holy Cross in 1985. In 1991 she earned her master’s in teaching from the University of Virginia so that she could teach Latin. She taught the subject for four years, but unlike her mother, a career teacher, Bird wasn’t fond of her job choice.
Bird attended Seton Hall law school at night while she taught. She earned her J.D. in 1995 and began her law career at a general practice firm before moving into municipal and school board law. She joined Gibbons in 2000, where she specializes in how the law affects employers.
Because the SAFE law is so new, Bird is unsure whether anyone has used it yet. And because it’s so new, Bird advocates that employers seek some input from attorneys such as herself. “Attorneys need to start training managers so managers know how to handle this,” she says.
The challenge is that there is no standardized chain of command in business. Some companies have a human resources specialist whose job is to inform managers about changes in the law. Other companies, even those with 25 or 30 employees, have no centralized HR department. Consequently laws get passed and notices get posted, but managers might not know that they don’t know everything.
Bird does train managers and employers in such legal issues as SAFE, but says that, like any law covering leave or sensitive topics as they relate to employees, handling a case that warrants SAFE leave largely comes down to knowing who to talk to.
“You have to post these things, but people don’t really read those postings,” Bird says. Relying on employees to know the laws is a fool’s mission, she says. It’s not just that they don’t know who to talk to, it’s often that employees don’t know that such laws really exist.
While family leave, which allows paid time off for such events as tending to sick parents or having a baby, has been around for years, there’s never been a law in New Jersey that allows time off, even unpaid, to deal with the fallout of a violent domestic or sexual crime. It’s up to managers to let employees know that they have an option, Bird says.
Bird advocates that the contact be either the HR manager or someone sufficiently high up in the company to warrant handling such sensitive news. Leave for something as serious as a sexual assault is not something most people would want everyone in the office knowing about. On top of that, employers are allowed by the SAFE act to ask for documentation confirming that a domestic violence or sexual assault incident occurred, and “you don’t want just anyone to be able to see that,” Bird says.
Training managers to get the word out about SAFE, she says, is mostly a matter of teaching them how to add a talk into their routine briefings or announcements to employees. In some companies HR managers update supervisors every month about policy and law changes. In other companies, Bird says, managers are briefed every few months. Either way, they could just add the SAFE talk to their meetings, Bird says. The main point is to inform employees that the option exists and to let them know who to contact in the event leave is needed.
Bird is unaware of any serious wrangling over the passing of SAFE, but says that legislators did work to balance the benefits of SAFE leave for employees and companies. The law allows employers to run SAFE leave concurrently with other, paid leave, for example. This allows employees in some cases to get their regular pay while they’re coping with their situation, but it also allows employers to limit an employee’s time away. No employer, after all, wants to have an employee out on paid leave and then be out another month (20 working days).
“I don’t know who would take advantage of something that serious,” Bird says, “but the law keeps people from double-dipping, as it were.” The fact that SAFE leave is unpaid is another compromise designed to give employees some time away and yet discourage them from being off the payroll for too long, she says.
As for penalties, there are some on the books, with fines ranging up to $2,000 for companies that violate SAFE provisions once; and up to $5,000 for those that do it again. A bigger concern is employee lawsuits, which can cost an employer money, force a company to reinstate an employee with back pay, or any of the kinds of things courts can order employers to do.
“Posting and training is the most important thing,” Bird says. “Employees just need to know.”