Last week, Carie Charlesworth, a teacher in California and a victim of domestic violence, was fired from her job because her abusive husband invaded the school parking lot and put the school on lockdown. While her abuser was sent to prison, she was also punished for his crime by losing her employment.
The school’s action -– firing her because she is a victim of domestic abuse –- is sadly legal in most states. Just six, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, New York, Oregon, and Rhode Island, have laws on the books that bar employment discrimination against victims of domestic abuse or sexual assault, according to an up-to-date document tracking these laws from Legal Momentum. State Senators in California introduced a non-discrimination bill in February, which has been referred to committee.
Illinois and Hawaii, as well as New York City and Westchester County, go further to mandate that employers offer victims reasonable accommodations so that they can stay at work: “things like allowing you to change your work telephone number or changing a shift so someone can’t stalk you and find you,” Michelle Caiola, a senior staff attorney at Legal Momentum, told ThinkProgress. Fourteen states protect victims who need to take time off of work to go to counseling, court, or seek medical attention due to their abuse.
For their part, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that only about 15 percent of employers have a workplace policy that specifically addresses domestic violence.
The laws are sparse, but the abuse at work is not. One study found that nearly three-quarters of abused women were harassed by their partner while at work. Homicide is a leading cause of workplace deaths for women, second only to roadway incidents.
But discrimination like the kind that Charlesworth experienced can lead victims to shy away from reporting. Of the 4 million workplace crimes committed against women from 1993–1990, less than half were reported to the police.
The loss of a job thanks to abuse can end up cutting off a lifeline to end that abuse. Three-quarters of women report staying with their abuser longer because of economic reasons. “We know that economic abuse is frequent in these situations, and abusers often try to get the victim fired in order to increase her financial dependency on him,” Kim Gandy, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, told ThinkProgress. By showing up at a partner’s workplace, in many states an abuser can put her job at risk, potentially driving her back into his arms.
Beyond the patchwork of state laws, “there is no real protection at the federal level for this,” Caiola said, although bills to provide employment protection are introduced “in every session.” In fact, the Security and Financial Empowerment Act was introduced in the house on March 15, which would bar employers from discriminating against domestic violence or sexual assault victims. The bill has been referred to committee and doesn’t have a vote scheduled.