Workplace Protections for Victims of Domestic Violence

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Written by: Tina Alberino

Several states have enacted paid sick leave laws to require employers provide paid leave for victims of domestic violence. This issue causes my internal conflict levels reach such a high rate of contention, each side of my brain threatens to split from the other and never speak again.

I find this completely agreeable and necessary. There’s nothing objectionable about that whatsoever and it’s something that should (and probably eventually will) be covered by the Family Medical Leave Act. No conflict there.

Tragic and psychologically scarring, domestic violence requires a lot of time to recover from physically and emotionally. As an employer, I would be as willing to provide leave to a recovering victim of domestic violence as I would be to provide leave to an employee recovering from breast cancer.

However, at least 21 states have enacted laws protecting victims of domestic abuse from employment discrimination and requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodations for them. Some of these laws require employers to provide up to 40 hours of leave (which I support), some require employers to grant time off for legal proceedings and counseling (which I also support), and an increasing number of them (including my home state of Florida) make it illegal for employers to fire, demote, suspend, or commit any other common “retaliation” tactics against victims of domestic violence.

You also aren’t permitted to discriminate against them, so if you know a qualified applicant to be a victim, you cannot refuse to hire them on that basis. This legislation, I cannot agree with.

Why would anyone be so torn on this issue of outlawing termination and “retaliation” against domestic violence victims, especially a known worker’s rights advocate?

Well, I’ve researched workplace murders — specifically, those that happen in salons.  I devoted a chapter of my first book to salon security and crime prevention. In my extensive research, I found a number of violent crimes, some with multiple casualties. Nearly every one of those violent crimes was the result of a domestic violence situation that came to a violent end inside the salon, not just for the intended victim, but for her coworkers and clients.

One case at Dominicanas Hair Salon in Casselberry, Florida, the subject shot four employees and then fled to a friend’s house where he killed himself. Three of the victims died. His ex-girlfriend and primary target survived.

Another case the person entered Azana Spa at 11:09 a.m. with a gun and forced everyone in the spa to lie on the floor. He proceeded to fire at them, killing three (including his ex-wife) and injuring four others before killing himself.

And yet another case the subject, who was involved in a custody dispute with his ex-wife, armed himself with three handguns, pulled up to Salon Meritage in Seal Beach, California, and began shooting. He shot and killed one person in the parking lot outside the salon and seven others inside, including his ex-wife.

There are more instances where abusers have entered salons — our workplaces — and stabbed their victims to death, attacked them with corrosive acid, and even doused them in gasoline before lighting them on fire, but I think I’ve made my point.

I have always advised salon owners to urge employees embroiled in violent relationships to immediately seek help and to suspend/terminate them if their situation rapidly escalates and becomes a clear, imminent threat — not because I believe victims of domestic violence deserve to be punished, but because I feel the employer has an obligation to protect their employees and clients in those extreme cases.

Florida was ahead of the curve for having granted protected status to victims of domestic violence years before any of the other states, but Florida also happens to be pretty terrible about actually doing anything to protect victims from their abusers. For that reason, I would have extreme difficulty complying if I found myself in this position with one of my own employees.

Do I support workplace protections for victims of domestic violence? Absolutely, just so long as other laws require the state attorneys to prosecute and advocate for the victim, too.

As professionals who interact closely with the public, many of us are morally obligated (if not legally mandated) to report suspected domestic violence. Unfortunately, states don’t always have laws requiring their own prosecutors to actually do anything about the abuse once we’ve reported it.

For example, New Jersey’s Prevention of Domestic Violence Act requires police to make arrests when there are signs of violence and injury, but there are no state laws requiring prosecutors to seek indictments or convictions. This failure on behalf of the state courts lead to a hairdresser’s entirely preventable murder at the hands of her abusive husband last year.

“An estimated 32,000 New Jersey domestic violence cases — nearly half — are routinely downgraded to charges heard in Municipal Court, where judges and prosecutors, lacking any serious training on domestic violence issues, are often more concerned about levying fines. About 80 percent of those cases are dismissed, state data shows.” — Sergio Bichai and Suzanne Russell, MyCentralJersey.com

Additionally, many DV support programs are severely underfunded, so victims often have difficulty receiving the support they desperately need, even when they finally can bring themselves to seek it. (On the flip side of that, many abusers who seek anger management, batterer’s intervention, and other help for themselves often have a difficult time finding and paying for programs also.)

I find it nonsensical that states would legislate an obligation on behalf of the employer to potentially allow their employees and clients to become collateral damage in a domestic dispute. If we’re to be legally responsible for reporting domestic violence and accountable for protecting the rights of domestic violence victims, police and prosecutors have to be held accountable also, and must be required to punish the abusers by prosecuting them to the fullest extent of the law.

Until that happens, I can’t in good conscience support or commend legislation that could put yet more innocent people at risk, even if I do agree that domestic violence victims deserve to be protected from workplace discrimination.

Without the support of the state prosecutors, legislation preventing workplace discrimination against DV victims will do nothing to substantially protect them or their coworkers from their abusers. In the meantime, we employers must do our best to comply and take whatever precautions we can to protect ourselves, our workers, and our customers.

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