Domestic violence moving into workplace

February 24, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

It's a sad story with an even sadder ending: The battered woman's abuser follows her to work so he can continue harassing her - and she loses her job because of it.

Unfortunately, it's a story Vicki Sadehvandi has heard more than once from her clients at Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused in Hagerstown, she said.

In one such case, the employee "was so overwhelmed by the abuse that she didn't even try to get her job back," said Sadehvandi, CASA's executive director.


"That would have been just one more thing she had to fight."

Domestic violence doesn't remain behind closed doors. It spills over into the workplace when battered partners - usually women - receive threatening phone calls and visits at work, and miss shifts, perform poorly and drive up company health-care insurance costs due to stress and injury from abuse, experts say.

Abusers might track their intended victims to the workplace in part because they are barred, through legal injunctions or protection orders, from going to victims' homes, Sadehvandi said.

The employer has an obligation to provide a secure workplace for victims of domestic violence, she said.

"I think many employers don't see that as a responsibility they have to the worker," Sadehvandi said. "But they need to understand the ripple effects of not having domestic violence policies in place."

Domestic homicide is the leading cause of death for women in the workplace with partners committing about 13,000 acts of violence against women at work each year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Studies show that one-quarter to one-half of domestic violence victims lose their jobs as a result of the abuse, according to the National Workplace Resource Center on Domestic Violence.

Sadehvandi estimated that 5 percent of CASA's clients - a fraction of the women abused in Washington County - have lost their jobs due to abuse.

The American Institute on Domestic Violence reports that:

  • 96 percent of battered women experience problems at work due to abuse.

  • 74 percent of these women are harassed while at work.

  • 56 percent are habitually late to work.

  • 28 percent often leave work early.

  • 54 percent miss entire days of work.

Nearly 1.8 million work days are lost each year due to domestic violence, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Domestic violence costs U.S. companies an estimated $3 billion to $5 billion annually due to lost work time, increased health-care costs, higher turnover, lower productivity and those workplace incidents that result in litigation, according to the Labor Department.

"It's something that's misunderstood because most employers don't take the time to look at the roots of the problem," said David R. Thomas, program coordinator for Domestic Violence Education at Johns Hopkins University's School of Professional Studies in Business and Education in Baltimore.

It benefits employers to establish zero-tolerance policies for domestic violence, and to create a work environment in which employees know they can confide their problems and get help solving them, Thomas said.

"The bottom line is that it's more cost-effective to keep and work with an employee than to fire them," he said.

Thomas called the business world's sluggish response to the domestic violence issue "deplorable," but said more employers are starting to acknowledge their duty - under law - to protect battered workers.

"Employers are starting to find that they can't just stick their heads in the sand and hope it goes away," he said.

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, employers are required to provide a reasonably safe workplace for their employees.

"If the employer knows or should have known that a person is at risk for violence, and that violence may occur on their premises, the employer must do whatever is reasonable to prevent that violence from occurring," Thomas wrote in an e-mail. "The question of what is reasonable will be decided on a case-by-case basis and be dependent on the variables present in the case at hand."

For example, an employer who knows that a worker has a protective order to keep an abusive partner at bay but who doesn't make a "reasonable" effort to keep the batterer from inflicting harm at the workplace may be held liable if the worker is injured - or worse - on the job, Thomas said.

The number of lawsuits filed against employers for not providing a reasonably safe workplace is increasing as affected employees and their loved ones gain familiarity with the law, he said.

The average settlement for a domestic violence-related murder in the workplace is $2.2 million, $1.8 million for rape, and $1.2 million for assault, Thomas said.

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