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City employees who are domestic violence victims could get paid leave 

The city of Rochester may soon offer paid leave to employees seeking to escape domestic violence.

During its July 21 meeting, City Council is expected to vote on legislation that would allow city employees who have been victims of domestic violence, or whose direct family members have been victims, to use paid time off to seek legal counseling, attend court proceedings, seek shelter, or receive medical or mental health care. Employees who do not have paid time off will instead be allowed to take unpaid leave without the risk of losing their job.

“Anyone who wants to utilize this policy, they will not be penalized in any way,” said City Council Vice President Willie Lightfoot, who introduced the legislation with Mayor Lovely Warren. “When victims are in this type of situation, they don’t need to be worried about losing their job, they need to be able to go and get help.”

click to enlarge Council Vice President Willie Lightfoot - PHOTO BY JAMES BROWN, WXXI NEWS
  • Council Vice President Willie Lightfoot
The legislation specifically references documented spikes in domestic violence throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as justification for the new policy.

For example, the New York State Domestic & Sexual Violence Hotline in a recent report noted that the number of calls it received in April were up by 33 percent compared to April 2019 and admittance to shelters increase by just under 20 percent. The legislation specifically references those spikes.

Locally, Willow Domestic Violence Center has seen a 120 percent increase in bednights, or safe nights offered to victims at the center, said Meaghan de Chateauvieux, the organization’s president and CEO. Calls to Willow’s 24-hour hotline have increased by over 6 percent.

Before the pandemic, calls to the hotline typically came from a mix of victims, other service providers offering referrals, and medical professionals, de Chateauvieux said. But since COVID-19 hit, there’s been a shift.

“Right now, it’s almost purely survivors calling, and most of them are calling under dire circumstances,” de Chateauvieux said. “These are emergency calls. Some of the time we encourage them to hang up and call 911 instead of us because they may be hiding in a closet, or maybe someone has a weapon and they’re scared for their life.”

The pressures caused by the pandemic are turning unhealthy situations into ones that are actively dangerous, service providers note.

“It’s just escalated so much,” de Chateauvieux said. “We’re not really getting the calls that are ‘hey, I think something is going on with my partner, I want to talk to somebody.’ It’s ‘I need support, emergency crisis help right now.’”

Phyllis McElligott, YWCA of Greater Rochester’s vice president of operations, echoed that sentiment. She said social isolation, economic instability, and general uncertainty about the future have become a perfect storm for domestic violence.

“If there is a situation where there’s been violence before, it’s only going to escalate because people can’t go anywhere,” McElligott said. “They can’t do anything, there’s no social outlets, there’s no face to face contact.

McElligott did not offer an exact number, but said the number of referrals to the shelter have gone up substantially since the onset of the pandemic.

“We get a lot of the overflow from Willow Domestic Violence Center because they’re always full,” McElligott said.

The paid leave proposal is the first piece of legislation Lightfoot has introduced. If it passes, employees would not be required to file for paid time off, but rather would be able take the time and then explain the need after the fact. He said the goal is to emphasize safety over everything else.

“What we don’t want is them to be bogged down with a process when they’re in trouble,” Lightfoot said. “When they’re in trouble, they need to just go get help. Go get help, and then we’ll figure out the rest.”

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at
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