A commitment to protection

A commitment to protection
Companies offer awareness programs on domestic violence to give workers the security they can't get at home

Unlike most domestic- violence victims, Martha Rodriguez felt she could speak up and tell her employer just why she was coming to work late. The reason: she was staying home with her children until her abusive spouse left for the day.

She felt confident speaking up two years ago because of the companywide domestic-violence-awareness training her employer conducted for all of its 3,500 U.S. employees.

And that training came about as the result of a far bleaker story. Another employee at the same plant in California where Rodriguez works as a senior assembler was attacked on her way home from work by her ex-husband, who stabbed her and then ran over her with a minivan.

That woman's death in May 2001 "sent shock waves through the company," says Lynn Harman, corporate counsel in the Woodbury office of Harman International, a Washington, D.C.-based audio equipment maker.

Harman, daughter of the company chairman, found that the human resources staff at the Northridge, Calif., plant had done the right thing -- advising the victim, Teresa Duran, 56, of her options, helping her find a domestic-violence shelter (where she stayed for a month when her ex-husband got out of jail) and granting her paid leave for that time.

"So much for our intervention. He got her anyway," says Harman.

Still, as a response, the company has gone on to make domestic-violence awareness a priority. In conjunction with the Family Violence Prevention Fund, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, it has conducted employee training sessions -- mandatory for everyone. The goal is to heighten awareness, discourage workers from thinking they should counsel others and, finally, to provide procedures and resources.

And while she admits that no workplace can be made 100 percent safe, Harman says, "Our only promise is the safest workplace we can create." Besides, when the company lets employees know their jobs are safe, "maybe they are in better positions to make better decisions for themselves."

Still, domestic violence remains on the back burner at many companies -- and even worse, some bosses further penalize victims, most of whom are women. It's "the dirty little secret of the workplace," said one audience member at a recent panel on the subject at Working Mother magazine's WorkLife Congress in Manhattan.

Victims have been fired for taking time off to go to court proceedings. They've been taunted by bosses and denied unemployment insurance benefits because moving to a safer location was not considered a good enough reason to resign from their jobs. This according to client profiles provided by Legal Momentum, a Manhattan-based women's rights group.

Between 25 percent and 50 percent of victims have lost jobs as a result of domestic violence, says Deborah Widiss, an attorney with that group. And those jobs are vital to providing both economic independence and a sense of self-esteem.

But New York City workers now have more protection. Laws passed during the past three years prohibit such discrimination and require employers to provide worker victims with reasonable accommodations. Those might include new phone extensions, modified hours so they can go to (and leave) work at less predictable times, and limited time off to attend court proceedings.

Just three weeks ago, Gina Reynolds, who had been dismissed from her job with the City Corrections Department, got reinstated when a State Supreme Court justice ruled in her favor. Her employers said she had violated their sick-leave policy by not providing her address, so they fired her. But during her leave, she was living at a domestic-violence shelter run by Safe Horizon, which -- although it has strict rules about not divulging the shelter's location -- would have told her employers if they had signed a confidentiality agreement.

Though employers could face the loss of millions of dollars in absenteeism and lost productivity, not to mention risking a headline-grabbing violent incident, they tend to minimize the issue until something happens and it becomes "in your face," says Matt Halpern, an employment lawyer with Jackson Lewis in Melville.

"I don't know any employer who didn't address it once it became an issue. ... Then the alarm bells go off and all of a sudden they focus."

Of the cases he's seen, he says 50 percent to 60 percent of employers' concerns never unfold," and in about 25 percent the couple work out their problems. But in about 10 percent of cases the harasser/abuser actually shows up in the workplace, and in 5 percent or less, some incident occurs.

An employer's best course, he says, is (1) to minimize the number of opportunities the abuser has to connect with the employee, (2) have a violence- in-the-workplace policy with protocols for intruders and (3) develop a good relationship with the police.

Employers can also provide hotline numbers in rest rooms, in newsletters and in pay envelopes, says Joan Sculli, director of education and community services with the Nassau County Coalition against Domestic Violence.

One thing she wishes is that more private-sector employers would take advantage of the free resources her organization and others offer. While government agencies look for support, at private businesses, she says, "we find it difficult to get invited in."

Because bosses don't always see the most visible signs of domestic violence -- bruises -- they may tell themselves there's no problem. But on bruise days most victims tend to stay home, she says. And then there's the lost productivity that results from a harasser's repeated phone calls, e-mails and faxes designed to disrupt the victim's work life. What's more, she says, "no group owns this problem." It cuts across cultural and economic lines.

Certainly some firms have assumed leadership roles. Liz Claiborne has been championing the domestic-violence issue for the past 13 years. Besides taking initiatives for its own employees, the company has set up a Web site -- -- with educational resources for schools, and this year it's selling special T-shirts, scarves and gloves to profit the Family Violence Prevention Fund and the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

A further concern at Harman International is that employees be treated fairly. At that California plant, human-resources staff not only told Rodriguez, 49, of her rights, they also told her about counseling, which she ended up getting for herself and her children. More than that, they didn't count her absences against her at review time -- she's gotten two raises in the past two years.

Now separated from her husband, who is getting help, , she says through an interpreter, "I am a very happy woman now."

So have many employees expressed interest in the company's program? "I wish I could say yes," Harman says, "but there's not a lot." She received a flurry of calls after her father testified before a Senate committee, with most callers asking for copies of their policy. But she doesn't want anyone thinking this problem can be solved just by passing out policies. Unless employers are willing to consider training, too, she's reluctant to send them the policy.

Says Harman of her devotion to this cause, "I'm a woman. I'm a mother. I have two daughters and a lot of nieces. This issue is close to my heart."
Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.