A woman who was fired after her abusive partner coerced her into violating company rules won’t get her job back, but a recent court ruling means that she will at least get unemployment benefits. It means survivors in 18 other states will likely have an easier time getting benefits, too.
E.C., a Washington, D.C. woman using just her initials to protect her identity, was in a relationship with her ex-boyfriend, identified as M.L., for over 11 months. It “was an abusive relationship, which involved stalking, the destruction of property in her apartment (he had spray painted stuff on it), and then eventually physical abuse as well,” said Jennifer Mezey, a supervising attorney with the Legal Aid Society, which represented E.C.
During the relationship, E.C. started working for an organization called RCM, which gives housing to people with disabilities. The company has a policy that bars employees from letting people who aren’t authorized onto the company grounds. But M.L. found ways to coerce E.C. into letting him onto the property anyway. In one instance, he followed her to work from domestic violence court, and she let him on so that he wouldn’t create a scene or harm anyone else. In another, she had asked him for a ride from work, but when he showed up, a coworker let him onto the property. In the last incident, she had to go into work early unexpectedly and she asked him to bring her breakfast. She let him in because she couldn’t leave a resident she was caring for.
“It made her life safer if he felt that she was dependent on him for these types of things,” Mezey said, like rides from work or getting breakfast.
Although he was let onto the property three times, he frequently showed up at work to harass her. In one incident, he called her repeatedly and then showed up at her workplace and tapped on a glass door while he watched her ignore his calls. He made “repeated attempts to invade her work space and stalk her at work,” according to an opinion from the D.C. Court of Appeals.
Her company wouldn’t have even known about the infractions if the abuser hadn’t told RCM himself. E.C. had tried to end the relationship at least four times, and when she finally broke it off, he threatened to get her fired, telling her, “[Y]ou think that you‘re going to hold your job? You‘re unfit to work here and I‘m going to make sure that I call your employ[er].”
Once RCM found out about the violations of company policy, it fired E.C. But when she applied for unemployment benefits, her application was denied because she was let go for breaking company rules. D.C.’s unemployment insurance program has protections for the survivors of domestic violence who are fired because of their abuse.
“The question revolves around what does ‘due to domestic violence’ mean,” Mezey explained. An earlier court hearing led to the decision that she shouldn’t get benefits because it wasn’t the entire cause of her termination. But on June 6, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of E.C. and found that victims should get benefits if violence was a “substantial factor” in losing their jobs.
This ruling could have a big impact in the lives of survivors. “If people can’t get unemployment insurance, then that only reinforces their dependence on their abusers,” Mezey said. Three-quarters of victims say they stayed with their abuser longer because of economic reasons. The money from unemployment insurance could be enough for them to break away and stay independent financially.
At least 18 other states have protections for domestic violence survivors in their unemployment insurance programs similar to D.C.’s, but this is the first case on this subject to reach a court of appeals. “The ruling is likely to have wide-reaching precedential effect,” Mezey wrote in a blog post.
Still, the case didn’t even touch on the fact that E.C. was fired because of her experience with domestic abuse. And sadly, in Washington D.C. and 43 other states, it’s perfectly legal to fire a victim of domestic abuse because of that abuse. Only California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, New York, Oregon, and Rhode Island have passed laws barring employment discrimination against victims of domestic abuse or sexual assault. A federal law was introduced in the House last year but hasn’t moved forward.
Yet nearly three-quarters of abused women are harassed at work. Homicide, often at the hands of an intimate partner, is the leading cause of death for women at work. And many of them end up in E.C.’s boat: in a study of 32 women who were in abusive relationships, 91 percent ended up getting fired or resigning from their jobs because of their abuse over the course of two years.