By Lisa Mak
Today is the last day of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, so let’s take a moment to reflect on the prevalence of domestic violence in our country. The press has no shortage of coverage on the issue when celebrities are involved, such as the recent leak of a video showing NFL player Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée in an elevator. However, the press largely ignores the real-world challenges faced by domestic violence victims. One challenge is maintaining employment while trying to get out of an abusive relationship. In most states, a domestic violence victim can still be fired due to the abuser’s conduct, based on an employer’s misguided safety or productivity concerns.
This is one of the shocking things I learned during my two years as a volunteer counselor on a domestic violence hotline. During that time, I counseled many victims who had different reasons for hesitating to leave the abusive relationship. Some victims were still in love with their abuser, or were too afraid of the violent aftermath if they tried to leave. Some cited a lack of a support network, as their partner had isolated them from family and friends. Still others were financially dependent on their abuser, who prevented them from working or had sabotaged every job they ever had.
In 2013, Carie Charlesworth, a teacher in San Diego, brought national attention to the economic vulnerability of domestic violence victims when she was fired after her abusive ex-husband invaded her workplace and placed the school on lockdown. Even though Charlesworth had a restraining order against her ex and had called the police, the school still fired her for safety concerns – essentially punishing her and her 4 children for her partner’s crime by taking away her livelihood.
As a result, Charlesworth became a strong proponent of SB 400, a new law protecting domestic violence victims from job termination. Enacted in 2013 and effective this year, SB 400 changed Labor Code sections 230 and 230.1 to prohibit an employer from firing or discriminating against an employee based on his or her known status as a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. The law also requires employers to provide reasonable safety accommodations for victims at the workplace, such as changing a phone number or relocating an employee’s desk.
With this new law, California joined 6 other states – Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, New York, Oregon, and Rhode Island – to specifically protect DV victims from employment discrimination. But that means that in 43 other states, there is still no protection or recourse for victims who are fired because of their status. That is appalling, considering that on average, approximately 20 people per minute in the U.S. are victims of physical violence by an intimate partner. About 1 in 4 women will experience some form of domestic violence in her lifetime.
For many victims, maintaining stable employment is critical for escaping the abusive relationship and for supporting themselves after leaving their partner. A 2012 study reported that 74 percent of women nationwide stayed with an abusive partner for a longer time due to economic reasons. In California, studies have shown that nearly 40 percent of DV survivors were fired or feared termination due to domestic violence. Laws like SB 400 protect victims who are often in a very vulnerable financial position. We need such laws in every state.
Some states do allow victims to take time off work for DV-related issues, such as obtaining a restraining order or testifying in court. But those laws are woefully inadequate. What good is it when an employee has a restraining order in hand but no job to go back to? How will she support herself while trying to be financially independent from her abuser?
Even without such laws, companies would be well-served by implementing policies to protect such vulnerable employees. Intimate partner violence is not just a “family” problem – it’s also a business issue. Employees who suffer from domestic violence or workplace harassment by their partner understandably may miss more work and be less productive. If the abuser visits the workplace, this could also be extremely disruptive to a company’s operations. Yet surprisingly, a 2006 study found that over 70 percent of U.S. workplaces did not have a formal program or policy addressing workplace violence. Even in those private sector workplaces that did have such programs, less than half addressed DV issues.
Firing victims of domestic violence does more than take away the financial security that can allow victims to leave their abuser. It also perpetuates the stigma of abuse and discourages other victims from reporting their experiences. It re-victimizes them and takes away the last shred of self-worth they may have.
It takes an incredible amount of courage for DV victims to exit their abusive relationships. Let’s not make it harder by putting their employment at risk too.