Illinois’ VESSA Law Offers Protection to Victims of Sexual Violence

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“More than one-fourth of stalking victims report losing time from work due to the stalking and 7% never return to work…Almost 50% of sexual assault survivors lose their jobs or are forced to quit in the aftermath of the assaults.”

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which calls our attention to the difficulties faced by victims of sexual and gender violence. In addition to their more obvious challenges, victims often encounter trouble in the workplace, especially when it comes to taking leave from work to address their trauma. Too often, employers penalize such employees—wittingly or not—at a time when they are most vulnerable. This makes it imperative that employers have some familiarity with sex- and gender-based violence, the ways they can impact one’s work, and the laws regulating how a workplace must support someone who has been traumatized.

What Is VESSA?

The Illinois Victims’ Economic Security and Safety Act (“VESSA” or the “Act”) was passed in 2003 by the Illinois General Assembly in recognition of the negative effects of sexual violence on employees and employers (the quotation above is taken from the Act). VESSA is crucial to protecting victims’ workplace rights, although many employers may not even know it exists.

VESSA safeguards the employment rights of workers who are victims of domestic violence, sexual violence, gender violence, or stalking, or who have a family or a household member who is a victim of the same. These employment rights include entitlement to leave, protection from discrimination for having suffered certain types of trauma, and protection from retaliation for availing oneself of the Act’s provisions. VESSA permits leave for the following purposes:

  • To seek medical attention or counseling for physical or mental injuries inflicted by an abuser;
  • To obtain victim services;
  • To relocate away from an abuser or stalker or to otherwise make life adjustments to increase safety; or
  • To seek legal assistance or attend court appointments in a proceeding related to domestic violence, sexual violence, or gender violence.

The Act addressed a gap in employment law at the time, which provided leave for medical emergencies or caring for a sick relative (e.g., the FMLA), but did not provide protections for employees who had to leave work temporarily to escape from an abusive partner or stalker, to receive trauma counseling, or to seek medical attention after experiencing sexual violence.

Gender Violence Recognized

On August 9, 2019, Governor J.B. Pritzker signed off on adding protections for victims of “gender violence” to VESSA, in addition to the existing protections for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. “Gender violence” is defined as illegal violence committed on the basis of a person’s gender. Unlike sexual and domestic violence, gender violence does not have to be of a sexual nature or committed by someone with whom the victim is in a relationship or cohabitating.

With this change, Illinois joined several other states that had expanded their laws relating to sexual violence since the #MeToo movement began in 2017. VESSA’s expanded coverage took effect on January 1, 2020.

How Can I Ensure My Business Is VESSA-Compliant?

Illinois employers should be familiar with the Act’s provisions for employee leave. Under VESSA, an employer may require corroborating documentation to support an employee’s request for leave, such as a notice of court proceedings related to a domestic violence charge. An employee is entitled to 4 weeks of leave within a year at an employer with under 15 employees, 8 weeks of leave annually at an employer with 15 to 49 employees, and 12 weeks of leave annually at an employer with over 50 employees.

The Act also includes protections against discrimination and retaliation. It is unlawful for employers to discriminate or retaliate against employees who are victims of domestic or sexual violence, either by terminating employment, refusing to hire, or changing their terms of employment. Employees are also entitled to reasonable accommodation, which may include a change in work assignment or location.

Do I Need a VESSA Section in My Handbook?

Although VESSA does not require employers to have a relevant section in their employee handbook, it is a best practice to include one.

Should your business require help drafting a VESSA policy for your handbook, contact us for help in ensuring your compliance with the Act