Targeting Domestic Abuse - at Work

Article excerpt

Beatrice Lane Estrada, an energetic, young blonde, loved her work as a legal secretary at a major Miami law firm almost as much as she loved her husband. But when he became abusive, suddenly work became her escape from physical beatings, even if she couldn't stop the obsessive phone calls and stalking that her husband used to try to control her.

For eight years she covered her abuse with silence, long sleeves, absenteeism, and excuses. In addition to suffering shame and humiliation, she feared losing her job. Her co-workers were unsympathetic, but her firm was unprepared to respond to her situation.After her estranged husband dragged her away from her desk through the firm lobby with attorneys, staff, and clients looking on and doing nothing, Ms. Estrada was forced to quit her job and go into hiding, using a false name for more than a year.

The workplace is a prime location for domestic abuse because it's often the spot an abuser is surest to find his victim. Indeed, 13,000 acts of domestic violence are committed in the workplace annually, and 96 percent of employed domestic violence victims have had abuse-related problems occur at work, according to American Bar Association data.

The business community is slowly realizing that domestic abuse in the workplace is also a huge financial burden. Recent studies show that American corporations pay an estimated $3 billion to $5 billion annually in medical expenses associated with domestic violence and forfeit $100 million a year in lost wages, absenteeism, and reduced productivity. Victims lose nearly 8 million workdays annually - the equivalent of 32,000 full-time jobs.

Employers who fail to respond appropriately to this issue can face legal liability. In addition to traditional legal remedies - such as the Family Medical Leave Act - more than 40 states and locales have enacted laws designed to create protections for victims of domestic violence. Maine pioneered the movement in1991 by changing its unemployment codes to include domestic violence. California was the first state to allow employers to seek restraining orders against employees' abusers in 1994, followed by Georgia, Arizona, Arkansas, Nevada, Rhode Island, Colorado, Indiana, and Tennessee. Recent legislation allows victims to collect unemployment benefits if they have to quit or are fired because of domestic violence. …