Agony of Domestic Violence at the Office
New York Times, March 1, 2000
By ABBY ELLIN
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
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."