UPDATE: Granting unemployment to domestic violence victims is urgent: Advocate

UPDATE POSTED 9 P.M. FRIDAY, SEPT. 24, 2021

MADISON COUNTY, Ky. (WTVQ) – Thursday, state lawmakers heard testimony and pleas from domestic violence survivors and advocates about proposed legislation that would grant unemployment benefits to domestic violence victims who lose their jobs or are forced out of work by assaults.

39 states and three territories already grant similar benefits.

“Kentucky is the second highest State in the US for rates of domestic violence with 1 in 3 women and 1 in 8 men experiencing in their lifetime” said Assistant Professor at University of Kentucky, Katie Showalter, during the session.

Executive Director for Hope’s Wings Domestic Violence Program in Madison County, Jennifer Lainhart says unemployment benefits for survivors are an urgent issue.

“It could mean the difference between them being homeless or not, it could mean the difference of them being able to pay a car payment or not….which means that they often fall back into abusive relationship because they rely on somebody else” said Lainhart.

Lainhart says she sees the struggle first hand, telling of how one of the women who stays with them, lost her job, her income and her home, running from an abusive partner.

“It’s kind of like we’re starting all over with her right, so she came to us, no income, which meant we had to figure out how to help her find her daughter some diapers and food and things like that so they truly are starting from scratch you know if a victim loses their job and they have to move to a different community it can be devastating to some people” said Lainhart.

Lainhart says research done recently found that 44 people in Kentucky died this year due to domestic violence.

The legislature’s Joint Workforce Committee was told Thursday the proposed legislation will be pre-filed in October.

ORIGIANL STORY POSTED 3 P.M. THURSDAY, SEPT, 23, 2021

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ) – State lawmakers hear an emotional plea for a law change that could address one of the state’s most pressing social issues.

Proposed legislation would grant unemployment benefits to domestic violence victims who lose their jobs or are forced out of work by assaults.

The bill will require documentation and benefits would be the same time period as current law. Currently, 39 states and three territories grant similar benefits. And it’s not expensive with Connecticut paying out $169,000 annually from surplus unemployment funds.

“It’s an issue that at the same time is desperate and urgent, it is something that is also clouded with silence and a lot of stigma attached to it,” said state Rep. Nima Kulkarni, a Democrat from Jefferson County.

She and Republican state Rep. Samara Heavrin, of Leitchfield, are drafting the legislation.

“Victims want to work, they want a better life, they want to pay bills, they want to be good parents, they want to be productive community members. And they are willing to do what it takes to get it done, but sometimes it just takes time,” added Tanya Thomas, with Springhaven, which provides services to victims.

“Allowing them to maintain basic stability for themselves and their children until they find new employment while also sparing them and their families from further trauma and hardship,” echoed Jillian Carden, of Silverleaf, another service provider.

Thursday’s discussion before the Interim Joint Committee on Economic Development and Workforce Investment centered around the many barriers victims face when it comes to escaping their abuser.

Kulkarni and Heavrin are drafting a measure to allow anyone who loses their job or must quit their job due to dating violence or abuse, sexual assault or stalking to qualify for unemployment insurance.

Kulkarni, Heavrin and others filed a similar bill during the 2021 regular legislative session, but the measure did not make it to the House or Senate floor for a vote. Kulkarni said they hope to pre-file the bill again for the 2022 regular session in October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

“This something that I’ve worked on for the past few sessions that was brought to me by constituents,” Kulkarni said. “And it’s an issue that at the same time it is desperate and urgent, (it is) something that is also clouded with silence and a lot of stigma attached to it.”

Katie Showalter, a social work professor at the University of Kentucky and a gender-based violence and employment expert, testified that gender-based violence is a major issue in Kentucky.

“Kentucky is the second highest state in the U.S. for rates of domestic violence with 1 in 3 women and 1 in 8 men experiencing (domestic violence) in their lifetime,” Showalter said.

Survivors often experience 15 days of work loss per year, and many victims are financially dependent on their abusive partners, Showalter added. Abusers often use control of finances to further isolate and abuse their partners.

“Income loss is a huge issue for survivors, but it is also tied to the loss of other resources like social relationships and benefits for the survivor,” Showalter said. “So it’s really like a chain reaction that survivors are experiencing…

“We are seeing lots of unemployment and specifically unemployment insurance would really help victims who are experiencing intimate partner violence, sexual violence or stalking to regain stability.”

The current draft of Kulkarni and Heavrin’s bill would require survivors to provide documentation in order to qualify for benefits. Currently, that documentation could be police or court records, a sworn statement from the survivor or other documentation from a shelter worker, attorney, member of the clergy or medical professional.

Kulkarni said benefits would be charged against the state’s pooled account and would not be a financial burden on employers.

Sen. Phillip Wheeler, R-Pikeville, asked if there would be any sort of counseling requirement. Kulkarni said the current draft of the bill does not have one, but added that some states waive the job search requirement if an applicant is seeking counseling.

Heavrin also responded that she is hesitant to add a counseling requirement since not everyone is ready to seek counseling right away.

“They’re not always able to go to counseling because the job might not allow them, so hopefully we can find a middle there that is helpful with the employee and employer,” Heavrin said. “But just to be empathetic, I think it is hard to push somebody to do counseling until they’re ready.”

Heavrin added survivors often have children and other things to consider when seeking help, but she is open to discussing the issue.

Kulkarni said they hope to work with more legislators and stakeholders before finalizing the draft and pre-filing the bill.

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