Benefits and Compensation, Learning & Development

Legal Protections for Domestic Violence Survivors

What legal protections exist at the federal level for the survivors of domestic violence? The answer: surprisingly few. The reason this is surprising is because domestic violence has a direct impact on the workplace. People dealing with domestic violence are likely to need to take time away from work for things like medical treatment, obtaining a restraining order, or seeking out a safe place to go. In fact, thousands of people lose their jobs each year because of these extra absences and related issues.

Here are the main federal regulations that are relevant:

  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave, which protects from job loss when taking time off for covered medical needs;
  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits gender-based discrimination that could happen in these cases;
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which would provide reasonable accommodations in cases when the abuse creates any type of disability, physical or mental; and
  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which requires employers to provide a safe workplace.

As you can see, these regulations are not specific to domestic violence but are applicable in such cases. Currently, most of the legal protections that are specifically created for survivors of domestic violence are at the state and local level.

Employers Are Directly Impacted

All of this is relevant for employers because they are directly impacted. Even without taking absences and turnover into account, here are a few of the ways:

  • Survivors of domestic violence may fear for their safety when away from the abusive partner, even at the workplace, and in some cases, the violence may enter the workplace.
  • These individuals are likely to be under stress, which can impact work performance and interpersonal relationships.
  • Survivors of domestic abuse may be particularly vulnerable to other forms of harassment or abuse, which could create a situation in which harassment or abuse in the workplace is more likely to occur.

What Employers Can Do

To address this lack of federal protection, there are many things employers can do to help. Here are a few examples:

  • Consider implementing a policy for “paid safe time,” which is paid time off to deal with issues related to domestic abuse. For more information, see this article on the topic.
  • Create a comprehensive policy regarding domestic violence that addresses the issue directly, or incorporate it into an existing workplace violence policy.
  • Provide training to the organization’s leaders on how to recognize the signs of domestic abuse and what to do if such abuse is suspected. This training should also include communication and sensitivity tips for discussing these issues with survivors.
  • Communicate about all your benefits to ensure that those in this situation are aware of their options.
  • Provide an employee assistance program (EAP), which can be a lifeline for those who need support.
  • Train leadership to remember that sexual harassment policies also apply to couples; if there’s a case of domestic violence and both individuals work for the same employer, this could be relevant.
  • Watch for other forms of survivor harassment, as some people unfortunately prey on vulnerable individuals.
  • Monitor new legal developments, and watch for any updated Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidance on this topic.
  • Assess your workplace’s security, and take steps to ensure employees feel safe. This could include adding security measures, requiring ID to enter the premises, etc.
  • Consider whether jobs can be modified to improve safety.
  • Be sure all employees know where they can report safety concerns.
  • Provide additional training to any leaders, ensuring they understand how to keep these types of issues confidential when appropriate.

Has your organization dealt with domestic violence directly? What steps have you taken to help protect employees?