On July 17, 2013, Governor Chris Christie signed the New Jersey Security and Financial Empowerment Act (the “SAFE Act”) into law.  The SAFE Act makes New Jersey amongst a handful of states to now provide unpaid leave for employees who are victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, or whose child, parent, spouse or partner is the victim of same. 

The SAFE Act, which goes into effect on October 1, 2013, mandates that employers with twenty-five (25) or more employees provide twenty (20) days of unpaid leave to any employee who is a victim of domestic violence or a sexually violent offense.  The act also provides such unpaid leave to any employee whose child, parent, partner or spouse is the victim of domestic violence or a sexually violent offense.  Employers are prohibited under the Act from discriminating against, discharging, harassing or retaliating against any employee who requests or takes leave under the Act.  Stiff penalties await employers who engage in conduct prohibited by the Act, such as civil fines, reinstatement of terminated employees, and payment of an employee’s lost wages, benefits, attorneys’ fees and costs. 

In order for an employee to qualify for leave under the SAFE Act, he/she must have worked for the employer for at least the proceeding twelve (12) months, and must have worked 1,000 (one thousand) hours during that period.  The twenty (20) days of unpaid leave are available to an employee for up to one (1) year following the incident, and days may be taken sporadically by the employee, but in intervals of no less than one (1) full day at a time.  An employee who requests leave under the SAFE Act should provide advance written notice for foreseeable leave to his/her employer.  Moreover, an employer may ask for documentation to substantiate the employee’s leave request, but employers must maintain the confidentiality of any such documents.  

Employees may request leave under the SAFE Act for acts including, but not limited to: seeking medical attention or recovering from physical or psychological injuries; seeking psychological or other counseling; preparation for legal proceedings relating to an incident of domestic violence or a sexually violent offense; and obtaining services from a victim’s services organization.  Employees should be aware, however, that an employer can require them to use any accrued, paid time off during any part of the unpaid SAFE Act leave. 

Employers have an affirmative obligation under the SAFE Act to provide employees with notice of their rights under the Act.  It is anticipated that the Commission of Labor and Workforce Development will provide guidance on a form of notice that employers will be required to post at the workplace.  In advance of the Act’s October 1, 2013 effective date, employers should consult with counsel to review and change relevant handbooks and policies to comply with the SAFE Act.