State, county and municipal governments as well as other public employers in New Jersey are expected to treat victims of domestic violence with greater compassion and give them more assistance under a new policy from the New Jersey Civil Service Commission.
The Statewide Domestic Violence Policy for Public Employers sets a uniform standard for dealing with issues that arise when a public worker is a victim or otherwise impacted by domestic violence. The policy was mandated by a law signed in early 2018 by former Gov. Chris Christie just before leaving office.
“These new guidelines seek to create an easy, welcoming, and confidential system for all public employees to report domestic violence incidents,” said Deirdre Webster Cobb, chair and CEO of the state Civil Service Commission, in a statement. “Furthermore, the policy will provide protections for domestic violence victims from retaliation by current and future employers for their history with domestic violence.”
According to the statement, the commission formed a task force consisting of government representatives, advocacy groups, and community leaders that formulated the policy unveiled on Monday. It’s unclear, though, exactly who served on this task force or whether it held any public meetings or took testimony, as a spokesman for the commission said he was unable to return a request for comment by deadline.
Domestic violence offenses are on the rise in New Jersey, according to the latest data from the New Jersey State Police. The 2016 Domestic Violence Offense Report (of offenses reported by police that year) shows a 3% increase over 2015. That works out to about one domestic violence incident every 8.5 minutes. And advocates say many more incidents are never reported by victims for a host of reasons, including that they do not want a loved one to get into trouble and because they fear greater injury or death if they tell police. About three-quarters of victims are women and about 28% involved or were witnessed by children.
Reverberating impacts of domestic violence
The impacts of domestic violence go far beyond physical and psychological injury and can affect an employee’s work. One goal of the Civil Service Commission policy is to encourage workers who are impacted by domestic violence to turn for help to human resources professionals where they work and to know that their discussions will be kept confidential. Every public employer — not just those covered by state civil service laws — is required under the policy to designate someone to assist victims. This HR representative or other official must undergo special training in the policy provided by the CSC.
Michael Cerra, assistant executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, said his organization did not oppose the legislation when it was being considered and supports efforts to help domestic violence victims. But he questioned whether the policy went through the normal procedure for writing state regulations, which include publication in the New Jersey Register and consideration of public comments before adoption. He also questioned how much consideration was given to how municipalities — especially small ones that probably don’t have a dedicated HR professional on staff — would be able to afford to implement the policy.
“We support the underlying policy objective,” Cerra said. “But I am very much concerned about how small local governments in particular are going to be able to train these people.”
He said the policy seems to indicate that two people will likely need to be trained because someone always needs to be available to assist victims, including when the HR representative or main designee may be on vacation.
“It is highly recommended that districts, to the extent possible, assign a back-up person for this designation for days when the primary human resources officer is not in the office or is unavailable,” wrote Kathleen Asher in the May/June 2018 edition of School Leader, the New Jersey School Boards Association publication. “The holiday season is a particularly difficult time for many families and incidents of domestic violence often increase during holidays and specific events such as the Super Bowl.”
Asher, an attorney with the association, noted that school districts will have to follow the policy.
Immediate response required
The law allows public employers to adopt their own policies, which can be broader than the state’s, but all must at least follow what the CSC is requiring.
According to the policy, an HR representative must immediately respond to an employee’s request related to domestic violence and must provide a safe and confidential location where the employee can discuss the circumstances surrounding the incident and ask for help. It is up to the professional to determine whether there is an imminent and emergent need to call 911 and/or law enforcement.
Additionally, public employers must:
- Provide an employee with information about resources for domestic violence victims and a confidential telephone line to make calls for emergency or supportive services, when appropriate, and help the worker secure needed assistance;
- Counsel the employee about the provisions and protections of the New Jersey Security and Financial Empowerment Act, (NJ SAFE ACT) which allows most workers to take 20 days of unpaid leave each year to deal with domestic violence or sexual assault incidents;
- Maintain the confidentiality of the employee and all parties involved, to the extent practical. This could include keeping information about domestic violence incidents in a separate file from a worker’s personnel file;
- Report any incident in which domestic violence involved a sexual touching or sexual assault between state employees to the agency’s Equal Employment Opportunity officer or another designated officer.
The policy also requires all public employers to develop an action plan to identify, respond to, and correct employee performance issues that are caused by domestic violence. Employers must provide “reasonable accommodations” to workers who may have trouble fulfilling their normal duties as a result of an incident. These may include safety measures, a modified work schedule, a transfer or reassignment.
And it reiterates protections spelled out in the NJ SAFE ACT that employers cannot retaliate against, terminate or discipline any worker who reports domestic violence incidents.
While the policy does not include a date by which public employers must comply, the domestic violence policy training for local HR officials is already available on the CSC’s website.