Senator Introduces Workplace Violence Plan

By Staff Report

Apr. 17, 2007

On the day after the worst shooting rampage in U.S. history at Virginia Tech University, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, introduced legislation that would address violence in another sometimes volatile location—the workplace.

Murray’s bill, the Survivors’ Empowerment and Economic Security Act, would allow 30 days of leave for victims of domestic violence in the workplace so that they can appear in court, seek legal assistance and secure their homes and families.

The measure also would give abuse victims access to unemployment insurance if they have to leave their jobs and prohibit employment and insurance discrimination based on a victim’s history of abuse.

Murray announced the bill at a Tuesday, April 17, hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety. Murray, chairwoman of the panel, asserted that it was the first Senate hearing on domestic violence in the workplace in five years. It was scheduled in advance of the Virginia Tech shootings.

But the campus tragedy framed the Capitol Hill meeting.

“So many families will never be the same,” Murray said in her opening statement. “Their loss hangs over everything we’re doing in the Senate today and will for a very long time. We need to do everything we can here in Congress to save lives and prevent violence from reaching into our schools, homes and workplaces.”

Although each witness at the hearing agreed that office violence should be prevented, an employment lawyer representing the Society for Human Resource Management cautioned against assuming that employers are not doing enough to prevent workplace tragedies.

“Overall, I find employers extremely compassionate about these situations,” said Sue Willman, a lawyer with Spencer Fane Britt & Browne in Kansas City.

Willman, a victim of domestic violence and a certified HR professional, argued the leave mandate contained in previous versions of Murray’s bill might force companies to reduce the time off they already provide in order to comply with the law. Murray had not circulated her new legislation before the hearing.

In addition, Willman said that victim leave must be coordinated with the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act and warned that, under Murray’s plan, employers might be forced to risk other employees’ safety to protect victims.

“Employers understand that there is no one-size-fits-all approach when domestic violence finds its way into the workplace,” Willman says.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia and ranking member of the subcommittee, shared Willman’s apprehension. He praised Murray for holding the hearing and introducing her bill.

But he has misgivings about unintended consequences of the legislation, such as increasing discrimination against abuse victims and fostering litigation. He says most employers are trying to prevent violence.

If the legislation is written assuming that employers are mostly at fault, it will go in a different direction from a bill that targets employers that have failed to protect victims.

“The presumptive basis of legislation is critical,” Isakson says. “For most companies that stay in business, the HR element is important and their concerns about employees are pre-eminent.”

One victim of domestic violence at work, however, told the panel her harrowing story—and asserted that her employer didn’t help her.

Yvette Cade’s estranged husband attacked her while she was working at a T-Mobile store in suburban Washington, D.C., on October 10, 2005. He doused her with gasoline, chased her from the facility to the parking lot, crushed her foot and set her on fire. The incident occurred a few weeks after a judge declined to place a restraining order on the man.

“I felt my skin dripping,” Cade testified. “I was just like a great ball of fire.”

Although Cade was a top saleswoman, she says the store management didn’t help her before the attack—and didn’t call the police when it occurred. A friend of hers dialed 911.

That was symbolic of the store’s previous blasé attitude.

“My problem was my manager not taking me seriously enough and acknowledging there was a problem,” Cade says. “I survived to tell the story of what happened to me in hopes that things could be different for other victims.”

An expert who testified before the committee argued that employers need to be prodded to develop anti-violence and victim-support policies. Kathy Rodgers, president of Legal Momentum, noted that only 4 percent of companies have programs in place.

She says that the “linchpins” of good policy are rules that prevent the firing of abuse victims, grant leave to them and provide unemployment if they have to relinquish their jobs because of their abuse.

“Very few [companies] have all the pieces in place,” Rodgers says. “They need to be thinking more about them and providing solutions.”

A voluntary program “leaves the burden with the victim to always come forward.”

Government intervention seems to be accepted in Maine, where a workplace domestic violence law was instituted two years ago. The measure provides unpaid leave for victims.

“We’ve had very few complaints from employers about enforcing this,” says Laura Fortman, commissioner of the Maine Department of Labor. Proposing and implementing the law “allowed a concentrated effort to bring this issue into the workplace. It allowed us to … really include employers in that conversation.”

Murray wants to broaden the dialogue beyond companies to schools and other dimensions of society.

“Do we still in this country see domestic violence as domestic violence and not as a community responsibility?” she asked the witness.

Mark Schoeff Jr.

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