- Associated Press - Friday, May 8, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - The governor signed legislation Friday to expand unemployment insurance benefits to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking.

Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock hosted the ceremonial signing at a domestic and sexual violence shelter in Helena, saying the new law will promote the economic well-being of victims and their families.

“No Montanan should have to choose between the physical safety of themselves and their children, and their economic security,” he said.

Under the bill, starting July 1, those who leave or are forced to leave their employment to escape the threat of domestic violence will be eligible for up to 28 weeks of unemployment benefits, the maximum generally allowed by Montana law.

Currently such victims are only eligible for 10 weeks of benefits. Those seeking benefits will have to provide a court order of protection or other documentation showing they are victims.

“Through the support behind this bill, victims are feeling like they are starting to be truly seen, heard and understood,” said Abbie Chermack, outreach and education coordinator at the Friendship Center in Helena, a shelter for victims of domestic and sexual violence in Lewis and Clark, Powell and Broadwater counties.

About 30 people a year currently claim the 10-week unemployment benefits, according to Chermack, who also said advocates work with clients all the time who are debating whether or not they can afford to leave a violent situation.

Bill sponsor Rep. Jenny Eck, D-Helena, said she hopes the number of people claiming benefits will rise.

“This makes it easier to leave, hopefully,” she said. “I truly believe this law will save lives.”

From 2003 to 2008, nearly 33 percent of the women killed while at work in the U.S. died at the hands of a current or former intimate partner, according to state officials.

The bill was the only one of several equal pay measures backed by Bullock that was approved by the Legislature.

One measure sought to keep employers from retaliating against employees who disclose their own wage, salary and benefit information. Another would have ended the practice of penalizing state employees for taking time away from the workforce to care for children or aging parents. Both proposals stalled in the Senate.

Eck said it took several legislative sessions to get the domestic violence unemployment bill passed.

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