(Washington, D.C.) - Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) introduced legislation and chaired a hearing that focused on domestic violence in the workplace. Senator Murray called the hearing to examine ways to end domestic violence in the workplace and to address the economic barriers that trap victims in abusive relationships. The hearing of the Senate HELP Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety was the first Senate hearing on domestic violence in the workplace in 5 years.
"Each day we get terrible reminders that domestic violence doesn't stay at home. It follows people into their workplace - posing safety, financial, and legal problems for victims, employers and other workers," Murray said. "If we ignore it, the horrible toll of domestic violence in the workplace will continue unchecked. But if we confront it, I believe we can make progress."
Today's hearing also coincided with Senator Murray's introduction of legislation that addresses financial security issues that sometimes keep victims in violent relationships. Her legislation, entitled The Survivors' Empowerment and Economic Security Act ( S.1136):
- Allows victims to take time off from work without penalty in order to make court appearances, seek legal assistance, and get help with safety planning.
- Allows victims in every state access to unemployment benefits if they are fired or forced to leave their job because of abuse.
- Prohibits discrimination in employment and insurance based on domestic or sexual violence, to ensure that victims are never punished for their abusers' crimes.
- Strengthens the Family Violence Option in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), in order to protect some of the most economically vulnerable victims.
The hearing follows several horrific instances of domestic violence spilling out into the workplace, including the campus shooting death of a 26-year-old University of Washington employee and a shooting the following day at the CNN building in Atlanta, in which a hotel employee was also killed by an ex-boyfriend.
The hearing also featured compelling testimony from a series of witnesses familiar with the problems of domestic violence in the workplace. One witness was Yvette Cade, a survivor of a horrific example of domestic violence in the workplace that drew national attention in October 2005. Read more about Cade's experience. Read her testimony.
"I survived to tell the story of what happened to me in hopes that things could be different for other victims," said Yvette Cade, who suffered third-degree burns over 60% of her body after her attack. "I think that employers have a significant role to play in helping victims of domestic violence and sexual violence obtain and maintain their independence."
Other witnesses included:
- Kathy Rodgers, president of Legal Momentum - Read Testimony
- Laura Fortman, Commissioner of the State of Maine Department of Labor - Read Testimony
- Sue Willman, Attorney, Spencer, Fane Britt & Browne - Read Testimony
Murray described the challenges survivors of abuse face as a series of locked doors.
"A victim wants to leave an abuser, but she can't support herself so the economic door is locked. A survivor wants to go to court to get a protection order, but she can't get time off of work, so another door is locked. A survivor needs medical insurance or a job, but she's discriminated against - yet more locked doors," Murray said. "My bill will unlock the doors that trap victims in abusive relationships. It will lift the economic barriers that allow abuse to continue."
Senator Murray's full opening statement follows:
We're here this morning to focus on domestic violence in the workplace, and before we begin I just want to say that yesterday a tragedy that is difficult to fathom took many young lives at Virginia Tech. So many families will never be the same, and as they mourn, we mourn with them. They're in our thoughts and in our prayers. Their loss hangs over everything we're doing in the Senate today and will for a very long time.
We need to do everything we can here in Congress to save lives and prevent violence from reaching into our schools, homes and workplaces, and that's why we're holding this hearing today.
Two weeks ago in my home state, a 26-year-old woman who worked at the University of Washington was killed at her workplace by an ex-boyfriend. She had filed a restraining order and warned friends and co-workers to be on the lookout for him. The following day, at the CNN building in Atlanta, a hotel employee was killed by an ex-boyfriend.
Many other cases of abuse, stalking, harassment and homicide don't make the nightly news, but they do end lives, hurt businesses, and alarm communities. Each day we get terrible reminders that domestic violence doesn't stay at home. It follows people into their workplace - posing safety, financial, and legal problems for victims, employers and other workers. If we ignore it, the horrible toll of domestic violence in the workplace will continue unchecked. But if we confront it, I believe we can make progress.
And I believe this is the time to have an informed discussion. Next week we will mark National Crime Victims Rights Week, and Lifetime Television is helping to focus attention on ending the violence.
My goal today is to gather the facts about the size and scope of the problem and to discuss solutions -- including a bill I'm introducing today called the Survivors' Empowerment and Economic Security Act, which I first introduced with my friend Senator Paul Wellstone and his wife Sheila. Together we crafted this bill with input from domestic violence survivors, advocates, workplace experts, and our Senate colleagues.
I want to thank our witnesses for sharing their expertise and experiences with us. We'll hear testimony from - Kathy Rodgers, president of Legal Momentum; Laura Fortman, who is commissioner of the State of Maine Department of Labor. Maine is doing some remarkable things to address DV in the workplace. Yvette Cade, a survivor of domestic violence in the workplace. Her horrific experience drew national attention in October 2005. Sue Willman is an attorney in with Spencer, Fane Britt & Browne in Missouri and has over 30 years of experience both as an employment lawyer and human resources professional. She represents management exclusively.
I've been working on domestic violence for a long time, and we have made progress. We've updated federal laws and invested in prevention, intervention and prosecution. We've made domestic violence something that "no one talked about" to something that is everybody's business. But I'm frustrated that we have not made as much progress addressing the economic factors that allow abuse to continue. As I discuss domestic violence today, I'm referring to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. Its victims can be men or women.
When domestic violence follows victims into the workplace, it reveals a key connection between safety and economic independence. For many victims of domestic violence, a steady paycheck is the only thing that keeps them from relying on an abuser. In fact, economic security and independence is the most accurate indicator of whether a victim will be able to stay away from an abuser.
But too often, victims are entirely dependent on their abuser for food and shelter for themselves and their families. And too often, abusers try to undermine a victim's ability to work, harass their victims in the workplace, or worse. If we want to end domestic violence in workplace - or anywhere else - we need to address the economic barriers that trap victims in abusive relationships.
Let me share a few statistics that show the challenge we face. Domestic violence impacts the productivity of employees and the success of businesses. Each year, domestic violence results in an estimated 8 million missed days of work nationwide. And each year, domestic violence causes up to 50 percent of victims to lose their jobs - making them more dependent on an abuser.
Many times, employers just don't know how to handle a situation where an abuser is coming to the workplace or causing an employee to miss work. Unfortunately, more than 70% of United States workplaces have no formal program or policy that addresses workplace violence, let alone domestic violence. Only 4% of employers provided training on domestic violence. Some companies make the wrong choice and fire the worker. But making the employee go away does not make the problem go away. In fact, it can make it much harder for that person to get help if they don't have the financial security that a job provides. So we need to help employers understand the right things to do.
Opening Locked Doors
As I look at these challenges, I see a series of locked doors. A victim wants to leave an abuser, but she can't support herself so the economic door is locked. A survivor wants to go to court to get a protection order, but she can't get time off of work, so another door is locked. A survivor needs medical insurance or a job, but she's discriminated against - yet more locked doors. My bill will unlock the doors that trap victims in abusive relationships. It will lift the economic barriers that allow abuse to continue.
The Survivors' Empowerment and Economic Security Act
Let me share four ways the Survivors' Empowerment and Economic Security Act will help. First, it allows victims to take time off from work, without penalty from their employers, to appear in court, seek legal assistance, and get help with safety planning. Second, it ensures that if a victim must leave a job because of abuse, that person is eligible for unemployment compensation. Third, it prohibits employers or insurance providers from basing hiring or coverage decisions on a victim's history of abuse. Too many victims can't get a job or the insurance they need because insurance companies reject abuse victims. Finally, the bill addresses the punitive elements of the welfare system that can penalize victims who are fleeing dangerous situations, also called the Family Violence Option. Those are the main parts of my bill. I want stakeholders to know that if they have concerns or ideas for improving the bill, my door's open, and I'd like to hear from you.
We owe it to the millions of victims of domestic violence, sexual violence, and stalking to address this problem head on. People should not be forced to choose between financial security and physical security. Together we can stop the cycle of violence and the toll it takes on families, communities and our society, but we have to change the law and that's what I hope we can do together starting with this hearing.