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The Cost of Domestic Violence in the Workplace

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

In memory of Tannis Johnson, and all other victims and survivors of domestic violence.

A staggering one woman out of every four has experienced violence by a partner at some point in her life, and for men the statistic is one out of every seven. An estimated 1.5 million adults are victims of domestic violence, with 85% of them being women. It only follows that with such a large amount of women affected by domestic violence, and the rising number of men also affected, that intimate partner violence is no longer something that happens behind closed doors and can be seen leaking into the workplace. Research has shown that employers in the U.S. lose an estimated $8 billion a year in lost productivity and health care costs as a result of domestic violence. It is an issue employers cannot afford to ignore.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released a report detailing women in the workplace. According to the report, violence and other injuries by persons or animals was the second leading (24%) cause of fatal occupational injuries to women. In fact, overall, homicide is the fifth leading cause of death for women ages 18 to 44. Approximately 43 % of female decedents were fatally assaulted at the workplace by a relative or domestic partner; the corresponding figure for male decedents was 2%.

If an employee is stalked or injured by a domestic abuser on company property, the company may face a tort liability. The same could happen if an abuser is able to reach the abused party during work hours because the company failed to take appropriate security measures. It is also important to note that employers can also face the wrong end of a discrimination lawsuit if it fires an employee for reasons that can be attributed to the status of a domestic violence victim.

Many organizations have gone to extensive lengths to protect themselves and their employees from “active shooter” scenarios; however what is often not said is that the majority of mass shootings in the United States are related to domestic or family violence. Here are some examples that might sound familiar:

  • In February 2016, a 38-year-old man named Cedric Ford opened fire on a Kansas highway and then at a factory he worked at. 90 minutes before the shooting, Ford had been served with a restraining order meant to keep him from contact of someone he had abused.
  • In April 2017, 53-year-old Karen Smith, a special needs teacher at North Park School in San Bernardino, California, was fatally shot by her estranged husband. The estranged husband, Cedric Anderson, walked into North Park School with a concealed weapon and entered Smith’s classroom and began shooting, hitting not only Smith but also an 8-year-old boy who died later and another 9-year-old student.

One of the first steps to addressing domestic violence in the workplace starts with raising awareness.

Employed individuals spend a large amount of their waking hours at their place of employment. This makes employers uniquely positioned to spot the symptoms of domestic violence and intervene. Providing resources and support is part of providing a safe workplace, as the OSHA General Duty clause mandates. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has found, however, that 65% of companies do not have a formal workplace domestic violence prevention policy. The study also revealed that 16% of organizations have had a domestic violence incident in the past five years, with 22% of organizations not knowing if they had an issue or not. “Ignorance of the issue is no longer an excuse for employers,” said Janice Santiago at Women Helping Battered Women. “We really have to work on the workplace culture around this issue, so employees will not be afraid or embarrassed to tell HR about domestic violence concerns, and are provided the flexibility to deal with the issue,” she said.

Employers can also help establish and promote a workplace culture that encourages domestic violence awareness and prevention. Managers should be trained to recognize that absenteeism, depression, and ongoing health problems could be signs of a domestic violence situation, and how to act when they recognize these signs. Mangers must know how to treat any domestic violence issue with confidentiality and trust, where to refer employees who may be victims of domestic violence, and how to manage the employee during and after. A wonderful site for employers to find many resources dealing with domestic violence in the workplace is the Workplace Responds to Domestic & Sexual Violence.

What are an employer’s legal responsibilities?

While there are no federal laws that directly address the rights of domestic violence victims, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued guidance reminding employers of their obligations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may necessitate accommodations to affected employees. There is also the OSH Act mentioned earlier, mandating a safe workplace, and OSHA has cited employers for a lack of workplace violence safeguards under that clause.

Remember, while there may be no federal laws, being a domestic violence victim is a protected class in many states. This means an employer must allow them time off from work to attend legal matters, meet with law enforcement officials, consult with attorneys or victim advocates, and so on.

  • Under the New Mexico Promoting Financial Independence for Victims of Domestic Abuse Act, employees who are victims of domestic abuse are entitled to domestic abuse leave, which may be paid or unpaid, for up to 14 days to qualifying employees in order to ask for an order of protection, meet with police, lawyers, victim advocates or prosecutors, prepare for and go to court about the case, and other activities allowed under the Act.
  • In California, for companies that employee 25 or more people, an employee who is a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault can take up to 12 weeks of leave to seek medical attention, obtain services from a shelter or rape crisis center, psychological counseling, or to relocate. California’s paid sick time laws also include a “safe time” provision, which refers to time off related to domestic violence, stalking, and/or sexual assault. California also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to secure the workplace for the victim’s safety.
  • The Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund has put together a comprehensive list of state and county employment laws concerning victims of domestic or sexual violence.

Furthermore, many states (including New Mexico and California) have gone one step beyond providing leave to domestic violence victims (as well as victims of sexual assault and/or stalking) and have enacted laws protecting victims from employment discrimination.  

Sometimes the best defense is a strong and enforceable domestic violence policy.

It is essential for both workplace culture and legal protection for an employer to establish a strong policy and procedures concerning domestic violence in the workplace. The policy should address:

  • Conduct that occurs off-duty
  • Security concerns and plan
  • The posting of resources
  • A safe reporting system for victims of domestic violence to alert their employers of a potential threat, and to receive help
  • Training for all organization employees
  • Any relevant federal, state, and local laws and the employee’s rights under these laws

The Poms Connects team has put together sample policies for both New Mexico Victims of Domestic Abuse Leave and California Victims of Felony Crimes Leave.

For any questions, or to request assistance on building a safe workplace plan or a domestic violence policy, please contact us.

Disclaimer—Please Note: This blog/material is provided for general informational purposes only and is not a substitute for legal advice particular to your situation. Poms & Associates, Insurance Brokers Inc. and the author expressly disclaim all liability relating to actions taken or not taken based solely on the content of this information.

The author makes every effort to offer accurate and practical Human Resource management, employer, and workplace advice, both on this website and linked to from this website, but she is not an attorney. The content on this site, while authoritative, is not guaranteed for accuracy and legality, and is not to be construed as legal advice. Additionally, employment laws and regulations vary from state to state and country to country, so this site cannot be definitive on all of them in your workspace.

When in doubt, always seek legal counsel or assistance from State, Federal, or International governmental resources to make sure your legal interpretation and decisions are correct. The information on this site is for guidance, ideas, and assistance only.