Agony of Domestic Violence

at the Office  


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Agony of Domestic Violence at the Office

New York Times, March 1, 2000

After her husband smashed the liquor bottle over her head, after the blood dried and her two young sons stopped crying, Rosa Schirripa realized the marriage was over. Although she got emotional support from her friends, she was afraid to approach the one person who might have given her the most practical help: her boss. She said she feared that he would view her as weak or stupid for staying with her husband for so long and that he would try to get rid of her. Eventually she did talk to him and, to her surprise, he gave her a few days off, at his convenience. Before that talk, however, she felt she had nowhere to turn for advice and protection. Instead, she spent a lot of time sobbing in the office bathroom and asked her colleagues to cover for her when the divorce lawyers called. Anything so her boss would not know.

Ms. Schirripa, a 38-year-old New Yorker whose ordeal ended in divorce two years ago, said she knew of other people who stayed in abusive relationships because they were afraid to go to their boss. "They're afraid of the stigma," she said, "afraid that they'll be replaced."

That attitude appears to be changing, though, as more companies become aware of how domestic abuse affects workplace morale and productivity, and as more cities and states consider legislation to protect victims against discrimination.

A decade ago, only a handful of companies in the United States had formal policies to help employees deal with domestic violence, but today hundreds do, said Donna Norton, manager of the Workplace Resource Center in San Francisco.

The Philip Morris Companies, with 57,000 employees, has been active in the campaign for greater awareness of the problem, holding workshops and conferences around the country. Last spring, it joined with Liz Claiborne Inc., the American Express Company and the Bell Atlantic Corporation to sponsor Safe at Work, a coalition of companies, labor unions and government agencies that seeks to spread the word about domestic violence and its effect on the workplace.

A number of state and local governments have also taken action. Since 1998, Rhode Island and California have enacted laws prohibiting employers from terminating employees who take time off to get restraining orders against abusive partners. Similar legislation is pending in Congress.

Maine and Dade County in Florida enacted legislation last year to provide unpaid leave for domestic violence victims. Ten states, including California, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, recently passed legislation making victims eligible for unemployment insurance if they lose their jobs. Mark Green, New York City's public advocate, says he plans to introduce a bill soon to broaden the rights of city employees in the event of domestic violence.

When it becomes known that employers cannot retaliate, "more women will come forward," Mr. Green said.

Domestic violence is probably a greater drain on productivity than most employers realize.

Ten years ago, the Bureau of National Affairs, a private company that monitors workplace trends, estimated the cost of domestic violence in lost output at $3 billion to $5 billion a year. And a study commissioned by Liz Claiborne in 1994 estimated that family disputes, including domestic violence, kept a million Americans off the job every day. Last year, Victim Services, a nonprofit assistance agency in Manhattan, received 95,000 calls from women who needed help because of abusive partners.

"Many of the callers talk about issues at work, because for women that's a prime place where domestic violence happens," said Bea Hanson, a director at Victim Services. "We get calls from women who are being stalked by their boyfriend or husband at their job, or they've gotten repeat phone calls that prevent them from focusing on their work. We get calls from women whose partners come in unannounced and demand they leave. Most women don't feel safe to talk about this issue at work, so it's important for women to know they can disclose this information and not lose their job."

That sort of uncertainty once haunted Brooke McMurray. Ms. McMurray, a vice chairwoman of Victim Services, worked at Time Inc. for more than 20 years before leaving in January. She was in an abusive relationship for 12 of those years, she says, but never sought help at work. "You didn't talk about it then," said Ms. McMurray, who is 50. "The guy operating the freight elevators was the only one I told," and that was because she used the freight elevator for years when her husband used to wait in the lobby for her.

Time does not have a formal domestic-violence policy, a spokesman said, but it does now have an employee-assistance program that can help victims.

Such a self-imposed wall of silence as Ms. McMurray's can come tumbling down at a company that advertises its eagerness to help people in her predicament. Janice Munson, a Philip Morris employee in upstate New York, says the company's policy helped save her sanity. Shortly after joining Philip Morris in 1990, she was divorced. Abusive calls and letters kept coming in, she says, but in the open atmosphere at Philip Morris she was able for the first time to talk to her superiors about her plight and to get help. She was encouraged to supply a description of her former husband to the security desk. She even got the mailroom to throw out letters from him so she wouldn't have to see them.

Ms. Schirripa, the woman who was hit over the head with a liquor bottle, is now a full-time administrative assistant at the College of Staten Island and is taking courses in social work there. She also makes speeches and works as needed for Mr. Green's office as an advocate for more enlightened workplace policies.

"Let the employer give the employee a chance, let her get on her own two feet," Ms. Schirripa said. Unpaid leaves are a big help, she said. Speaking for victims of violence, she added: "I'm not even asking for pay. I'll lose the money, but if I lose my job I lose my lifeline."


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