'Lack of domestic violence policy makes firms vulnerable to lawsuit'

August 19, 2005

The federal labor ombudsman for the Northern Marianas warned employers yesterday that they could be sued for lacking a policy addressing domestic violence in the workplace.

Ombudsman Jim Benedetto advised human resource managers to establish a program assisting employees who are victims of domestic violence and to adopt a policy toward workplace violence.

Benedetto was the guest speaker at the Society of Human Resource Management meeting at the Hyatt Regency Saipan yesterday.

In his presentation, he said that domestic violence is not only a family issue, but a workplace problem as well. "Although domestic violence acts at the worksite are infrequent, they can be serious and can potentially involve others," he said.

According to Benedetto, 75 percent of domestic violence victims face harassment by intimate partners while at work.

He added that domestic violence affects company productivity by causing victims emotional problems and more time off from work. It also increases health care and health insurance costs.

Furthermore, employers may be liable for domestic violence acts in the workplace.

"Workplace violence litigation has dramatically increased under intentional tort and various negligence theories," Benedetto said, citing several cases where employers were ordered to pay violence victims or their families for failing to provide adequate security in the workplace.

Various statutes may also expose a company to legal liability, Benedetto said. These include occupational safety and health laws requiring a safe workplace; laws protecting employees who have become disabled as a result of domestic violence; family or medical leave laws requiring employers to grant leave for health conditions related to domestic violence; victim assistance laws prohibiting employers from taking adverse action against a worker who takes time off to deal with domestic violence issues; and anti-discrimination laws requiring equal treatment for domestic violence victims by employers and insurers.

To avoid company liability, Benedetto said, employers should develop a policy promoting programs that increase awareness of domestic violence and sources of assistance.

Since lack of financial resources is often cited as the primary reason victims stay with their abuser, such policy should also provide options to prevent loss of wages when domestic violence causes absence from work.

Benedetto urged employers to allow workers who leave abusers to make changes in benefits at any time to prevent the abuser's access the victim's bank account or the new address or location of health care providers, for instance.

A workplace safety plan specific to domestic violence is also essential; so is the employer's cooperation in enforcement of restraining orders that protect victims, he said.

Benedetto said employers should make every reasonable accommodation to employees who experience performance difficulties due to domestic violence.