Workplace Protections for Victims of Domestic Violence

This issue causes my internal conflict levels reach such a high rate of contention that each side of my brain threatens to split from the other and never speak again.

Recently, five states (California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Vermont) enacted paid sick leave laws that require employers to provide paid leave for victims of domestic violence. 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. Domestic violence is tragic and psychologically scarring. It requires a lot of time to recover from physically and emotionally. As an employer, I would be as happy to provide leave to a recovering victim of domestic violence as I would be to provide leave to an employee recovering from breast cancer. (If you’re new here, I’m not being sarcastic. I actually care about employees and their welfare.)

However, nineteen states enacted laws protecting victims of domestic abuse from employment discrimination and require 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 some (like those in 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.

This is the point when my gray matter heats up and vibrates like a Motorola StarTac circa-1996.

(All nineteen states, btw, are listed on this post here and each law is clearly spelled out.)

So, here’s why I’m so torn on this issue of outlawing termination and “retaliation” against domestic violence victims.

I’ve researched workplace murders, specifically, those that happen in salons. When I wrote my last book, I devoted a chapter to salon security and crime prevention. In my extensive research, I found an alarming number of violent crimes, some with multiple casualties. Nearly every one of them 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.

Here’s one. (Shooting. 3 dead, 1 wounded.)
Here’s another one. (Shooting. 3 dead, 4 wounded.)
Here’s another one. (Shooting. 8 dead, 1 wounded.)
And another. (Stabbing. 1 dead.)
And yet another. (Doused in gasoline and set on fire. 1 dead.)
Plus this one. (Stabbed 23 times while clients and coworkers attempted to protect her. 1 dead.)
Also this. (Shooting. 1 dead.)
Plus this. (Shooting. 2 dead.)

There are more, but I think I’ve made my point. Plus, I can’t stomach listing them any longer.

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 is obligated to protect the employees and clients in those extreme cases.

As much as I sincerely hate to share personal details, I feel it’s necessary to state this before anyone accuses me of being insensitive to the plight of abused women–I have been a victim of domestic abuse. Like so many women who grew up seeing verbal abuse, coercive control, and violence, I found myself in that cycle for longer than I’d like to admit. For years, I volunteered my services to halfway houses that sheltered DV victims and displaced mothers in Sarasota and Manatee County, and have organized Cut-It-Out fundraisers.

I’m not a stranger to domestic abuse nor am I insensitive to it. Quite the contrary; I’m hyper-sensitive to it. It terrifies me to an extreme degree because I know just how quickly volatile relationships can escalate to fatal violence and how easily innocent, uninvolved people can get caught in the crossfire.

I know Florida was ahead of the curve for having granted protected status to victims of domestic violence years ahead of the other states, but I also know firsthand how terrible they are about actually doing anything to protect victims from their abusers.

It’s for that reason that I would have extreme difficulty complying if I found myself in this position with a severely victimized employee.

Do I support workplace protections for victims of domestic violence? Absolutely, just so long as other laws require 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. So are many doctors, teachers, and nurses. Unfortunately, states don’t always have laws requiring prosecutors to actually do anything about 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-level laws that require prosecutors to seek indictments or convictions. (This failure on behalf of the state courts is what lead to hairdresser Giorgina Cimino Nigro’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

I didn’t pull data from Florida, because after writing all this I’m depressed enough, thank you very much.

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 help for themselves often have a difficult time finding and paying for programs also.)

IT’S NONSENSICAL TO ME 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 you’re going to hold professionals legally responsible for reporting domestic violence and hold employers accountable for protecting the rights of domestic violence victims, the police and prosecutors have to be held accountable too. Until that happens, I can’t in good conscious 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.

What are your thoughts on these laws? Let me know in the comments. (Seriously, my wildly conflicted brain could use the help reconciling this, because even now, I’m disagreeing with myself and changing sides over and over again.)

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7 COMMENTS

  1. This topic is completely relevant and important. I’ve literally NEVER seen this topic addressed and I appreciate you going there. Your feelings 100% mirror my own.

    • Good! I was sitting there reading the legislation like, “Am I a horrible person or does this not make ANY sense for anyone involved?” Glad to know I’m not the only one!

  2. It would be the worst position to be in, to have to make that call.
    I will say that I once worked with someone who, short version, threatened to come in our office and ‘shoot the printer, then shoot all of you…’ I went to the bosses about it. With other conversations in mind, I had reason for concern. He was let go. I was scared for months… I made a plan to hide/escape. I stopped working late at night alone (which was usually my most productive time). But, I felt it was for the safety of the office to speak up. I’ve never regretted that decision. I’m so thankful nothing ever did happen. Oh, and the inner office doors got locks after he left, making it more difficult for someone to just walk back from reception to the offices…
    I would say, though, I think there should be some way to discuss this with the DV victim and make some sort of arrangement to keep everyone safe, even if it means he/she take a temporary extended leave of absence… Surely they would want their fellow team members to be safe, too….

    • I totally agree. I’d be willing to support a victim seeking help in any way possible, but if it looks like a neverending, progressing cycle of escalating violence, that’s when I’d have to make an extremely tough decision, one that would likely require multiple lawyers to facilitate.

  3. I would as a salon owner, have myself and my employees take a self defense class, ask the local police to up their patrols by my salon, have a husband/boyfriend/significant other/friend(s) to kind of hangout, and finally get a concealed hand weapon license for when that piece of paper doesn’t protect your employees/clients/friends.

  4. I’m far from ashamed to say I’m a dv victim. I agree that Florida does have many dv resoucres for women and children. And yes, I can also agree that they suck at protecting victims and that it’s also the victim’s choice to put up with the system to get justice served; just like any other crime that police recognize as victimless. Needless to say, I do believe that employers need to take action in protecting their business, especially starting with the employees. I believe women’s top reason for searching for employment is to break free of an abusive relationship where the man, or dominant female, has control of the fiscal establishment in the household. Every business predominately run by women should have a laminated dv resource poster posted near the salon’s regulations, msds, monthly goals, state laws, etc. Why? Because every employee at some point of their employment will need to refer to at least three of those posts.. One of those posts being domestic violence references. Whether its for theirself or a loved one. Secondly, I do believe that employers and employees, including the independent contractors, need to establish a relationship close enough to be comfortable enough to say “Hey!! I am or have been dealin with dv and the abuser knows where i work. I need help to keep the abuser out of this blessed workplace. How can you help.

    • I completely agree! The poster idea is fantastic. In the past, when clients have revealed to us that they’re victims, we’ve made “appointments” for them for hair services, but really arranged for them to see DV counselors and social workers in our back room. This is back when I was heavily involved in Cut-It-Out, so we were seen as a safe place. The abusers never suspected anything. They’d drop off their partner at our shop and pick them up after, never realizing that the appointment wasn’t really for services. Over the last fifteen years, we did this for three women.

      I’ve long been a fan of magnetic locks on the entry doors. Not just to deter theft, but to keep things like this from happening too.

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