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When Domestic Violence Hits the Workplace: Businesses Contend With Collateral Damage

| October 18, 2013

'You are worth more than this,' says the note. (Topeka Library)

‘You are worth more than this,’ says the note. (Topeka Library)

Gathered in a community where the city and county have approved workplace policies banning domestic and sexual violence, experts said Thursday that all employers should be aware that workplace violence affects not only victims but business profits.

“The effects of that kind of violence are very significant in terms of insurance costs, absenteeism, lost productivity, disruption in the workplace — all of those business costs that are really significant to anybody watching their bottom line,” said attorney Stacey Dougan, a speaker at Thursday’s “Women and the Workplace” Summit at Florida State University.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, victims of intimate-partner violence lose a total of nearly 8 million days of paid work per year, the equivalent of more than 32,000 full-time jobs, and the cost of domestic violence to the U.S. economy is more than $8.3 billion. A national survey by the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence found that 21 percent of full-time employed adults were victims of domestic violence, and 64 percent said their work performance was significantly impacted.

Especially in low-wage jobs, said conference speaker Sarah Gonzalez Bocinski of Wider Opportunities for Women, between 25 and 60 percent of survivors either were laid off due to violence or had to resign.

“When you don’t have that economic security as a survivor, you’re not able to break the cycle of violence and move forward,” Bocinski said.

The conference was hosted by Leon County and the city of Tallahassee, via their joint Commission on the Status of Women and Girls. The community had been badly shaken in 1996, when a local woman named Penny Knowles was gunned down by her husband in the parking lot of her workplace. In response, the city established a domestic violence task force.

Tallahassee and Leon County are Florida’s first city-county combination with workplace policies banning domestic and sexual violence, including stalking.

Dougan, the board chair of the Atlanta-based Men Stopping Violence, pointed to the late 1990s as the source of additional laws that have held employers more responsible for employees who are victims or perpetrators of domestic and sexual violence.

Since 1999, for instance, a number of laws have required granting leave to victims to attend court proceedings, obtain medical care or address child-care issues. Others make it illegal to discriminate against victims of domestic violence.

“If you know you have a perpetrator and don’t act, you could be liable,” Dougan said.

Conference speakers said the first response of employers and colleagues of battered women is often such things as, “I have to get my job done — I don’t want to deal with other people’s personal problems.”

Another stumbling block: While the public has generally learned over the last 20 years that battered woman come from all walks of life, it hasn’t accepted that batterers do, too.

“Where you see a total disconnect is when you’re telling an employer about your law partner, your physician, your legislator, your janitor, your supervisor — that is where the real disconnect happens,” Dougan said.

The panel acknowledged the cost of implementing workplace violence policies, which can take some time to develop. But templates are available, said moderator Robin Hassler Thompson, from groups like the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence.

All the panelists said if a workplace policy is to be effective, leadership must come from the top — but many CEOs don’t think it happens in their shops.

“What I say to employers is, ‘It’s not a matter of if you deal with it, it’s when,’ ” Dougan said.

At the state level, lobbyist Karen Woodall has tried and failed for several years to get the Legislature to grant unemployment benefits to battered women who are forced to leave jobs due to safety reasons.

“(The lack of such a policy) essentially locks them into their jobs or makes them move and not have any economic security,” Woodall said.

But John Fleming, a spokesman for the Florida Retail Federation, said policies about domestic and sexual violence should be up to the employer.

“Domestic violence is a serious issue,” Fleming said. “We encourage employers to take a look at it, because it does affect a lot of people. We encourage a policy addressing it, but it shouldn’t be mandatory.”

–Margie Menzel, News Service of Florida

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