Practice Areas

Domestic Violence is an Overlooked Workplace Issue

I recently viewed a continuing legal education program titled “Domestic Violence: A Primer on Accommodations and Discrimination in the Workplace” (presented by the American Bar Association Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence, Civil Rights and Social Justice Section and ABACLE) and was struck by how little this issue has presented itself in my practice.  Domestic violence permeates the lives and compromises the safety of an estimated 10 million people living in the U.S. each year, with tragic, destructive, and often fatal results.  On average, that means 1 in four women, and 1 in ten men.  But, in 19 years of practice, I haven’t had one client come to me with a domestic violence issue affecting one of its employees.

I believe that this is in large part due to the silence surrounding domestic violence.  Often victims of domestic violence don’t reach out for help for fear no one will believe them. Many feel embarrassed or ashamed they “let it happen,” or feel it was “their fault.”  And those who would be in a position to help – whether that be in the community, the workplace, or elsewhere – are unaware of the signs pointing to a potential domestic violence situation.

This post is one way I can contribute to stopping this silence.

Domestic violence doesn’t stop at home.  Even if the abuser isn’t finding a way to abuse their victim’s during the work day (many of them do), the abuse doesn’t just fade away and disappear from the victim’s life when they’re working and the abuser is not around.

The states have come to recognize this and, in the last decade, many have strengthened protections for victims of domestic violence in the workplace.  For example, I practice in New York and New Jersey, and in just those jurisdictions alone the following protections were enacted:

  • In 2013, New Jersey enacted the SAFE Act, which provides 20 days of unpaid leave for victims of domestic and sexual violence to deal with the aftermath of an abusive act.
  • In 2018, New York City amended its mandatory sick leave law to provide for safe leave for victims of domestic violence, unwanted sexual contact, stalking or human trafficking.
  • In 2019, New York amended its Human Rights Law to require that employers provide reasonable accommodations to victims of domestic violence.
  • In 2020, New York rolled out a mandatory sick leave program, which provides for safe leave for victims of domestic violence, a family offense, sexual offenses, stalking or human trafficking.

While this is a start, what I learned from this CLE program is that employers can, and really should, do more for their employees beyond what is required by law.  Every employer should have a policy that addresses the issue of domestic violence separate and apart from any policies addressing workplace violence or sexual harassment.  That policy should stress that domestic violence is a workplace issue even if it happens elsewhere and that the employer will do what it can do to accommodate and/or provide resources to a victim.  The policy should address issues such as security concerns, need for reasonable accommodation (beyond time off from work), work performance issues, and confidentiality, among others, and assure victims that they won’t be penalized for seeking assistance under the policy.

The Workplaces Respond to Domestic and Sexual Violence: A National Resource Center project is a wonderful resource for those interested in providing effective workplace responses to victims of domestic violence, sexual violence, dating violence and stalking.  They have published a Model Workplace Policy on Domestic Violence, Sexual Violence, and Stalking that addresses these issues, and much, much more.   I urge you to visit their site and take a look.

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