MIAMI — Beatrice Lane Estrada, an energetic, young blonde, loved her work as a legal secretary at a major Miami law firm almost as much as she loved her husband. But when he became abusive, suddenly work became her escape from physical beatings, even if she couldn't stop the obsessive phone calls and stalking that her husband used to try to control her.
For eight years she covered her abuse with silence, long sleeves, absenteeism, and excuses. In addition to suffering shame and humiliation, she feared losing her job. Her co-workers were unsympathetic, but her firm was unprepared to respond to her situation.After her estranged husband dragged her away from her desk through the firm lobby with attorneys, staff, and clients looking on and doing nothing, Ms. Estrada was forced to quit her job and go into hiding, using a false name for more than a year.
The workplace is a prime location for domestic abuse because it's often the spot an abuser is surest to find his victim. Indeed, 13,000 acts of domestic violence are committed in the workplace annually, and 96 percent of employed domestic violence victims have had abuse-related problems occur at work, according to American Bar Association data.
The business community is slowly realizing that domestic abuse in the workplace is also a huge financial burden. Recent studies show that American corporations pay an estimated $3 billion to $5 billion annually in medical expenses associated with domestic violence and forfeit $100 million a year in lost wages, absenteeism, and reduced productivity. Victims lose nearly 8 million workdays annually - the equivalent of 32,000 full-time jobs.
Employers who fail to respond appropriately to this issue can face legal liability. In addition to traditional legal remedies - such as the Family Medical Leave Act - more than 40 states and locales have enacted laws designed to create protections for victims of domestic violence. Maine pioneered the movement in1991 by changing its unemployment codes to include domestic violence. California was the first state to allow employers to seek restraining orders against employees' abusers in 1994, followed by Georgia, Arizona, Arkansas, Nevada, Rhode Island, Colorado, Indiana, and Tennessee. Recent legislation allows victims to collect unemployment benefits if they have to quit or are fired because of domestic violence.
Other new laws allow employers to take out restraining orders to bar angry intruders from the workplace, prohibit employers from taking adverse actions against workers who need time off to deal with violence, and require employers to grant victims paid or unpaid leave. Many states prohibit insurers from discriminating against domestic violence victims.
Several companies - including Bank One, Verizon Wireless, American Express, and Liz Claiborne - have taken leading roles in developing policies to counter domestic violence. Policies now include provisions like special parking spaces, escorts to public transportation, and flexible hours.
Dozens of other progressive companies work with the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence (CAEPV), a national organization working to influence employers' responses to victims in their workplaces through information exchange and project collaboration. CAEPV's corporate members and affiliates reach more than a million employees nationwide. But nearly 95 percent of companies have no domestic violence policy, leaving hundreds of millions of workers like Estrada unprotected.
October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month - conferences nationwide are focusing on education, strategies, and the implementation of programs designed to prevent and combat this pervasive and deadly pattern of violence plaguing our society.
The challenge is great. One out of three women has experienced domestic abuse during her lifetime. In 2000, 33 percent of murdered women died at the hands of an intimate partner.
But interested employers don't have to reinvent the wheel. CAEPV (www.caepv.org), the law firm Greenberg Traurig (www.gtlaw.com), and the Family Violence Prevention Fund (www.endabuse.org) all have model policies posted on their websites. Liz Claiborne's program is available at www.lizclaiborne.com. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE) is available 24 hours a day to provide immediate crisis intervention, referrals, and information.
By actively educating ourselves and engaging corporate leaders in this dialogue, we can begin to empower the victim and silence the abuser.
• Kathie Klarreich is a freelance writer.