People For the American Way Foundation

Correcting an Imbalance: Expanding Benefits for Survivors of Domestic Violence in Montana

The following is a guest blog by Montana Representative Jenny Eck, a member of People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network and Minority Whip in the Montana House of Representatives.

It hasn’t been easy, but after years of debate and hard work, Montana now has a law extending the unemployment benefits available to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. This is a huge development. It means that someone trying to leave an abusive spouse can now focus on tasks like seeking counsel, navigating the legal system, looking for a new place to live, moving children into a new school district, or finding another job in a new town – without the added burden of finding the money to make it all happen.

At the bill’s signing, Governor Steve Bullock said, “No Montanan should be forced to choose between the physical safety of themselves and their children, and their economic security.” It’s a stark choice, and one that nobody should have to make.

Yet for the hundreds of women in recent years who have been murdered at their workplace by current or former intimate partners, this choice is all too real. Intimate partner violence is a leading cause of fatalities for women at work, and women are at a significantly higher risk than men of being the target of a violent act while on the clock. A 2012 Labor Department study found that of all workplace incidents of intimate partner violence from 1997 to 2010, 38 men were victims, while women numbered 346 over the same period. There are severe economic ramifications, too – according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, women in the U.S. lose around 8 million days of paid work each year because of intimate partner violence.

Leaving an abusive relationship is hard enough; the state shouldn’t make it even harder. Yet historically, that is precisely what Montana has done. Until HB 306 was signed into law, survivors of sexual assault were eligible for just 10 weeks of unemployment insurance. Victims of a natural disaster, on the other hand, were entitled to 28 weeks of benefits. This disparity was shocking; surely suffering the trauma of sexual assault can be just as debilitating as living through an earthquake or tornado.

The new law corrects this imbalance. Extending support to these survivors was the right thing to do, and it will save lives as a result.