How to Help Survivors of Domestic Violence in the Pandemic

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. October 1, 2020
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distraught woman with head to knees

​The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the risk of domestic violence and made it more difficult for employers to detect when an employee has been harmed.

As a result, "it is important for employers to be particularly attuned to risk factors of domestic violence and make sure that employees feel supported and know what resources are available to them," said Adam Fiss, an attorney with Littler in San Jose, Calif.

Rise in Domestic Violence

Approximately 1 in 4 women and nearly 1 in 10 men have experienced sexual violence, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the numbers reportedly have gotten worse during the pandemic. More than 43 million women and 38 million men have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner, the CDC also has said.

Domestic violence is on the rise during the pandemic because the abuser and abused are home together more often, creating more time for the incidents to occur, said Pamelya Herndon, CEO of the KWH Law Center for Social Justice and Change in Albuquerque, N.M.

"Many studies have shown that unemployment and economic hardship at the household level—such as the sharp economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic—are strongly correlated with increases in abusive behavior," Fiss said.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Fewer Chances to Seek Help

Remote work also may hinder individuals' ability to seek help. "Victims often wait to be alone—such as when a partner leaves to go to work—to get help," Fiss said. "Those chances to be alone have now dwindled."

There are fewer outlets for assistance because some courts have temporarily barred in-person hearings, which in many jurisdictions are required to obtain a restraining order, he added.

Many domestic-violence counseling services also are operating remotely and face the same economic crunch as the rest of the country, Fiss said.

Recognizing the Signs

To help employees, employers need to be attuned to the signs of domestic violence and train staff on what to look for.  

During the pandemic and with the increase in remote work, employers may have fewer opportunities to observe visible signs, such as bruises, according to David Gartenberg, an attorney with Littler in Denver.

"However, videoconferences may allow for some limited ability to see these signs," he said. Schedule videoconferences at least once or twice a week, he recommended.

Watch for signs someone is being subjected to domestic violence. Fiss said these indicators include:

  • Changes in job performance.
  • Unusual quietness.
  • Sensitivity about discussing home life and hints of trouble at home.
  • References to a partner's bad moods, anger, temper or substance abuse.
  • A display of being frightened or anxious.
  • Lack of concentration.

"Where there is a change in work production or quality of work, an employer should consider having conversations with an employee about the changes that are being noticed," Herndon said. "Because employees are working away from the office, and often housed with their abuser, it may be difficult to have those conversations during a workday."

"Keep in mind that abusive partners often seek to limit victims' privacy, so calls, e-mails and texts may be monitored," said Genie Colbert, SHRM-SCP, director of human resources at Sanctuary for Families in New York City.

Consider having an in-person meeting with an employee if domestic violence is suspected, Herndon said.

Remind the employee of a company's employee assistance program, if it offers one, or any other domestic-violence-related company policies, Gartenberg added.

"Employers need to continue to keep the channels of communication open, and employees need to know that there is help and there are resources, even in this new environment," said Tracy Billows, an attorney with Seyfarth in Chicago.

When staff know the signs of domestic violence, there is the chance to help people leave abusive relationships, Herndon said.

But she cautioned that not everyone wants to leave their abusers. Sometimes, individuals "want to get help for their family and assistance in finding a way to end the violence," she said. If someone doesn't want to leave the abusive partner, let the individual know that the employer cares about the employee and his or her well-being, Herndon added.

[Need help with legal questions? Check out the new SHRM LegalNetwork.]

Legal Protections

Gartenberg said many jurisdictions provide protections to employees who are targets of domestic violence. Some of the laws help employees by allowing them to take protected time off to seek safe housing, obtain treatment for psychological or medical issues, or seek a restraining order.

Other laws provide similar safeguards in a jurisdiction's mandatory sick-leave statute.

Individuals also can take unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act if they suffer a serious health condition as a result of any domestic or sexual violence, Billows noted.

Gartenberg said at least 23 states, plus some municipalities, have laws separate from mandatory sick-leave statutes providing protections. The laws allow employees experiencing domestic violence to avoid employment-related consequences. States with such laws include Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

Other jurisdictions with such laws include Austin, Texas; Chicago and Cook County, Ill.; Dallas; Miami-Dade County, Fla.; New York City; Philadelphia; St. Louis; Saint Paul, Minn.; San Antonio; Seattle; Washington, D.C.; and Westchester County, N.Y. 

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