Understanding an Employer's Obligations When Domestic Violence Affects the Workplace
November 10, 2014
Over the past few months, the media has reported extensively about several incidents of domestic violence involving professional athletes. While these high-profile cases generate huge attention, it is important to remember that domestic violence is a problem of epidemic proportion. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men have experienced physical or sexual violence or stalking by an intimate partner. Only a small fraction of these cases involve millionaire athletes. Whether it is obvious or not, domestic violence impacts workplaces across the United States on a daily basis. When this happens, an employer is often left struggling with the question of how – if at all – it should acknowledge and react to an employee’s sensitive and highly personal situation. While the nature of the problem makes it impossible to predict every issue that might arise, the following questions are frequently asked by employers when domestic violence affects their workplace. Question: Do any job protections exist for domestic violence victims? Answer: Yes. In several states, including New York, domestic violence victim status is a protected category, meaning that an employer cannot take adverse job actions against an individual on that basis. While federal law does not expressly provide this same protection, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII) makes it unlawful for an employer to treat an employee differently due to sex-based stereotypes, such as the assumption that there will inevitably be “distractions” in the workplace if a female employee is involved in an incident of domestic violence. This is not to say that domestic violence victims are insulated from employment actions taken for legitimate work deficiencies or other non-discriminatory reasons. It does mean, however, that an employer will be expected to prove that a challenged action occurred for a non-discriminatory reason. It is also important to remember that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and analogous state laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of covered physical or mental impairments. Those same laws also require employers to provide disability-related accommodations, which could include modifying certain job responsibilities or employment policies, unless doing so would cause an undue hardship to the business. Although an incident of domestic violence would not itself implicate these laws, the accompanying physical and emotional harm could constitute a disability resulting in employee coverage. Question: Is an employer required to provide victims of domestic violence time off from work? Answer: The New York Penal Law makes it a misdemeanor offense for an employer to penalize the victim of a crime who, after giving advance notice, takes time off from work to appear in court as a witness, consult with a district attorney, or obtain an order of protection. In addition, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) grants eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to recover or receive treatment for serious health conditions, which could include counseling for any physical or psychological conditions resulting from domestic violence. The ADA and equivalent state laws may also require that some amount of unpaid leave be offered as a form of reasonable accommodation. An employer would also be expected to grant domestic violence victims time off from work pursuant to internal leave policies if leave is normally available to employees experiencing other types of personal matters. Question: Is an employer obligated to ensure a safe workplace for domestic violence victims? Answer: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration considers workplace violence to be an occupational hazard which can be prevented or minimized with appropriate precautions. Included within the agency’s definition of workplace violence is violence by someone who does not work at a given location, but who has a personal relationship with an employee. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s “General Duty Clause,” employers are required to provide a place of employment that is free from recognizable hazards that cause or are likely to cause harm to employees. An employer that has experienced acts of workplace violence – or is on notice of threats, intimidation, or other indicia to show a potential for workplace violence – is required under the general duty clause to implement feasible abatement measures. Question: What if my employee is not the victim, but is the person accused or found guilty of engaging in criminal acts often associated with domestic violence? Answer: New York and many other states make it unlawful for an employer to discipline, discharge, or take other adverse action against an employee who was accused of a crime if the charges have been dropped, dismissed, or otherwise resolved in the employee's favor. At least in New York, that same protection is not afforded to pending charges, but an employer motivated by mere allegations that an employee has perpetrated a crime could nevertheless find itself defending against claims of discrimination on other grounds. This includes a claim that the challenged action was the result of an employer policy or practice which adversely impacts one or more groups protected by Title VII, as addressed in recent enforcement guidance issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If the accused employee belongs to a union, additional protections may be afforded under a collective bargaining agreement provision requiring “just cause” prior to disciplinary action. In regards to criminal convictions, several states restrict an employer’s ability to fire an individual because he or she has been convicted of a crime. In New York, an employer considering such action must evaluate eight factors, such as the nature of the offense, the time elapsed, the age of the individual when the offense occurred, and any evidence of rehabilitation. Only after evaluating these factors will an employer be in a sufficient position to determine whether a direct relationship exists between the offense and the job, or whether the person’s employment involves an unreasonable risk to property or safety, either of which would provide a defense to a discrimination claim based on a prior conviction. For either arrests or convictions, an employer should investigate the underlying facts to determine if an individual’s conduct justifies termination or some other employment action. Failure to do so may hurt the employer’s chances of successfully defending against allegations of discrimination, prevailing at arbitration, or avoiding negligent hiring or retention claims. In sum, employers must become familiar with the various legal obligations that arise when an employee is involved in domestic violence, either as the victim or the accused. If the employee is known to be suffering the effects of an abusive relationship, the employer should be prepared to grant leave or make other work-related adjustments to facilitate the employee's physical and emotional recovery or participation in the legal process (including obtaining an order of protection). If the employee is accused or convicted of a violent or threatening act, the employer should determine if the underlying conduct impairs his or her continued employment, recognizing that the law generally disfavors employment actions taken because of an individual’s arrest or conviction record. In either situation, merely ignoring the problem is never a good strategy.