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The violence had escalated for years before one day in October 2020, when Virginia’s husband threatened her life in front of her two children. She fled. The three of them hid in a domestic violence shelter in New York City as a global pandemic raged.
Virginia, whose full name is being withheld to protect her safety, wondered how she would care for her children. She was their sole caregiver, and most child care options had shuttered in the pandemic. Her shift at work as an ultrasound tech ran until 10 p.m. every weeknight, an hour past the shelter’s curfew.
The only thing that made sense was asking for an earlier shift. The day after fleeing her husband, Virginia arrived to work at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, where she’d been a tech for more than six years, with her 4- and 5-year-old and a letter from the shelter explaining to the head of the radiology department that she’d need a new schedule. Under New York City law, employers are required to accommodate workplace requests from domestic violence survivors unless it would create an “undue hardship” for the business. They’re also required to engage in a discussion with the worker to try to accommodate their needs.
Instead, Virginia said she was told to take time off to handle her situation. When she returned a week later, she was told that no one in the ultrasound department had been consulted about her request, and she was asked to take two more weeks of leave because the department remained “concerned for her well-being.” They would have to be unpaid weeks, however, because she’d used all her paid time off.
“That’s when I start realizing they are not doing anything,” Virginia told The 19th.
By the end of October, she was told the department could not accommodate her shift change or her extended leave — the one she said she’d been told to go on. And after she didn’t show up to work on her original return date because she fell ill with COVID-19, she got an email from the HR department: She had been fired for what they claimed was “job abandonment.” The termination letter made no mention of her request for accommodations three weeks earlier, or the fact that she’d communicated that she had COVID and couldn’t return per the hospital’s own guidelines.
“I went to the head of the department, spoke to him. I spoke to the supervisor. I spoke to everyone. And now they’re all denying me and they’re firing me and saying job abandonment?” Virginia remembered. “I was devastated.”
St. Barnabas Hospital declined to comment for this story.
Virginia’s case is now in the hands of the New York City Commission on Human Rights, where it has been since she filed a complaint nearly a year and a half ago. It represents the many ways that domestic violence survivors are struggling to get workplace accommodations more than two decades since laws designed to protect survivors at work started to go into effect. Even in the places with the strongest protections — New York City’s law is considered model legislation — enforcement is difficult because domestic violence survivor employment laws don’t come with additional funding for enforcement agencies. Often, they are stacked on top of other civil rights cases at agencies that were already struggling to keep up with their caseload.
And in the workplace, employers are still largely uninformed about their legal responsibilities to domestic violence survivors — a population that has limited resources and time to pursue a case if their employer does not comply with state laws. At the federal level, there is no legislation that addresses workplace accommodations for domestic violence survivors.
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Forty-one percent of all women and a quarter of men experience sexual or physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to 2022 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which does not collect data on nonbinary people.
But data on domestic violence survivors and the workplace is extremely limited, making it difficult to drum up support for legislation, advocates said. One national study in 2005 found that 64 percent of domestic violence victims said their ability to work was impacted by the violence. About a fifth of the U.S. workforce identified as survivors in 2005, according to a nationally representative survey conducted at the time by the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence, a now-shuttered nonprofit that worked with businesses on the impacts of domestic violence in workplaces. About 20 percent of employers were offering training on domestic violence by 2013, according to a study by the national HR association, the Society for Human Resource Management.
Only nine states and Washington, D.C., require workplace accommodations for survivors, according to Legal Momentum, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization for women that is representing Virginia pro bono. Some 13 states and D.C. prohibit firing someone based on their status as a survivor, and 36 states and D.C. have amended their unemployment insurance provisions to cover survivors. Currently, 15 states and D.C., as well as a number of cities and counties, have paid sick time laws that specifically include time off for domestic violence survivors to take time to get a restraining order or to relocate for safety.
But just because those protections are there doesn’t mean they are being utilized.
“The problems we’re dealing with right now are employers are woefully unaware of existing legal requirements, and even those who are aware don’t necessarily take them that seriously, because I don’t think they are seeing that type of enforcement,” said Seher Khawaja, Virginia’s attorney at Legal Momentum. “It’s very difficult for survivors to find legal representation in these contexts. There are not many attorneys who are as well-versed in these cases.”
The longer the enforcement takes, the “harder it is for survivors to get back on their feet,” Khawaja said. Since Virginia put in her complaint, the agency has interviewed her twice. She hasn’t heard anything since the last interview in March.
The commission declined the 19th’s request for comment on the case “to preserve the integrity of our investigations,” but it did add that it has resolved 38 cases regarding domestic violence workplace discrimination since 2016, when New York City first launched a task force on domestic violence. The department received 110 inquiries in that time, though not all of them ended up becoming cases.
That represents a sliver of the roughly 10,500 other inquiries the commission receives each year. In its 2024 fiscal year funding, it was given funding to hire 17 more attorneys and support staff. It also invests in training and online resources to inform people about their rights as survivors, the commission said in a statement.
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Still, for survivors like Virginia, the wait is a barrier to her reaching the economic autonomy that would help move her and her children forward.
“I don’t think we think nearly enough about how profound the impact of domestic violence is on workplace sustainability for a survivor,” Khawaja said. “It comes into play when a survivor needs that financial independence most in their lives.”
Virginia was in the domestic violence shelter for 10 months trying to find other jobs with no luck. Her employer wouldn’t provide a recommendation letter, she said, and the termination made it hard for other employers to consider her application. A serious car accident in May 2021 was followed by a lengthy recovery that has made it even more difficult to find work. She’s since moved away from New York City.
“When I think back about it, they took away my passion — I loved being an ultrasound tech and I loved my job. I just wish they could have just worked with me at the time, but I can’t go back,” she said.
Protections for domestic violence survivors at work have come in waves since the mid-1990s, when the first laws were passed to give survivors access to unemployment insurance.
Robin Runge, the attorney who has worked on most domestic violence workplace protection bills at the state and federal level from the start, said she came into the work because women were being left behind by the legal system.
“I became aware of the epidemic nature of domestic violence and the struggles survivors face, and when I mean the struggles, I mean the abject racism, classism, sexism,” Runge said. “Most of my clients were Black and almost all of the judges were White men. The justice system was failing these people miserably, and it was a real wake-up call.”
Workers constantly had questions about how they could support themselves and keep their jobs if they had to constantly go to court to get protection orders or for other legal needs to ensure their safety.
The first couple pieces of state-level legislation Runge helped write allowed domestic violence survivors to still qualify for unemployment insurance if they lost a job for a reason relating to that abuse. Generally, people who leave jobs are not entitled to those benefits, but for domestic violence survivors, the reasons for leaving a job may be more complicated — they are often doing it to ensure their own safety or that of their coworkers.
The next wave of bills focused on securing unpaid leave for victims who needed time off but did not qualify for it. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act only offers workers unpaid time off if they’ve been at a job for at least a year.
Wendy Pollack, the founder and director of the Women’s Law and Policy Initiative at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, worked on a lot of those early cases around leave. As a family law attorney, she remembers frequently hearing: “If I have to go to court one more time, I’m going to lose my job.”
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Pollack worked to draft a bill in Illinois called the Victims’ Economic Security and Safety Act that passed in 2004, which granted up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to victims of domestic violence to access anything from medical help to legal assistance. Barack Obama, a state senator at the time, was the sponsor of that legislation.
In the 20 years since, Pollack, Runge and others have worked to improve on the foundations those laws set, including making the leave paid instead of unpaid. Most recently, Minnesota passed paid sick leave that includes “safe time” for domestic violence survivors, which survivors can use to find safe housing, get a protection order or go to court, for example. They accrue time throughout the year with access to up to 48 hours of safe time available a year (up to six days if a worker follows an eight-hour work day). It will go into effect in 2024.
Including safe time in the state laws has been standard since those laws started to pass in 2008 with D.C. — and earlier in San Francisco in 2006 — said Molly Weston Williamson, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank. All include full-time workers and at least some part-time workers, depending on whether the law includes a minimum hours worked per week requirement in order to qualify. Most do not.
“As things were newer, there was more discussion and it required more work. I think we’ve hit a point in time in which it’s become more standard and more universal,” Weston Williamson said.
The next step for advocates now is getting protections for domestic violence survivors included in paid family and medical leave laws, which are separate from sick time and typically give workers up to 12 weeks of time off, time they could use to relocate, for example, or find child care for their kids if they’re in a shelter, like in Virginia’s case. Currently only six of the 13 states and D.C. that have paid family and medical leave laws include provisions for domestic violence survivors.
But despite how widespread it is becoming, many survivors still don’t know they have access to these protections. Advocacy groups are working to get more broad awareness on what’s in paid leave policies by working with shelters and other direct-service agencies to ensure they are informing survivors on their rights and by leading workplace trainings with employers.
“What we have seen over and over again across the board is when you pass a law that gives people important new protections, the value of that law is really only in if people know about them and can use them,” Weston Williamson said.
Raising awareness has also been a challenge with the most recent wave of domestic violence survivor protections regarding workplace accommodations. The majority of states that have enacted workplace accommodation statutes have tied them to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Workers would have to prove they have a disability brought on by their status as a domestic violence survivor, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, in order to get an accommodation. In New York City, they simply need to be a survivor to ask for an accommodation, which could range from a new shift, to not working at a front desk or getting a lock on their door. The law in New York is rare and has only been in effect since 2019.
At the federal level, there’s been no success: Laws have been introduced to help domestic violence survivors since as early as 1996, and they’ve all stalled. It’s not dissimilar from the challenges with passing paid family and medical leave — all of those bills have passed at the state level but “we don’t have a prayer of doing it at a federal level,” said Sherry Leiwant, the co-founder and co-president of A Better Balance, a national nonprofit legal advocacy organization for women in the workplace.
“With respect to employment rights it’s particularly hard because so many of our representatives, particularly at the federal level, are influenced by business interests. They just don’t want to interfere with business,” Leiwant said. “I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been so successful at the state and local level. The balance is a little different.”
Even in the states, though, education for employees on their rights and training for employers on their responsibilities has fallen behind, quelling the impact of those laws that have passed.
“As someone who worked on all of these things, what makes me sad is that very few people know these laws exist, including survivors. Very few people who work with survivors know these laws exist,” Runge said. “We are in an education breakdown.”
A couple years ago, she worked on a project talking to state enforcement agencies in five states. Most knew very little about the laws and had nothing on their websites with information for survivors, Runge said.
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The other reason survivors are struggling to get restitution is that additional funding for the resources needed to ensure that training and education is not there. The laws that relate to domestic violence survivors don’t include any additional funding other than what is already budgeted for enforcement agencies.
“When we tried to get this legislation passed, we gave up on anything that would create a fiscal note, to be honest,” Runge said. “Maybe we should have said then we’re not going to pass it. What we ended up with is an unfunded mandate, and this is a recipe for disaster.”
One thing that could make a big difference is ensuring survivors know their rights, avoiding the legal challenges Virginia is currently facing.
“Callers will call us and we’ll say this law protects you and, more often than not, armed with that going to an employer — and [the] employer will not know about it either — the employer will say, ‘Oh I didn’t realize that,” Leiwant said.
Khawaja and the team at Legal Momentum are currently working with the state of New York to strengthen its laws to require employer training on domestic violence survivors laws, a lesson taken from the success of sexual harassment training in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
That’s the path forward, advocates said. So much attention has been paid to sexual harassment at work, when it’s not dissimilar from harassment that happens outside the workplace. Connecting those dots could be the key to unlocking more protections for survivors, Runge said.
“This is happening everywhere, and this demarcation of it happens at home — you get these; and at work — you get these,” doesn’t make sense anymore, Runge said. “We as women experience this everywhere.”