Domestic violence is a serious problem that affects millions of Americans each year and involves physical violence, psychological abuse, sexual violence and verbal abuse, among other forms of abuse. At its core, domestic violence is a battle for power and control. Specifically, it is a pattern of behaviors used by one person to maintain power and control over another person in an intimate partner relationship.
While domestic violence knows no boundaries and affects people irrespective of their economic status, race, religion, sex, age, education, national origin, immigration status, sexual orientation and gender identity, the vast majority of victims are women— and for women who work outside the home, the risks of intimate partner abuse are greater than for women who do not.
In recognition of Women’s History Month, the goal of this article is to raise awareness about domestic violence and the battle to control a woman’s economic power. As a former employees’ rights attorney and survivor, I have incorporated personal aspects of my life to shed light on the human implications of intimate partner abuse.
The Dynamic of Economic Power and Control
Contrary to popular belief, domestic violence is not rooted in anger and pent-up male frustrations. It is a result of a perpetrator’s sense of entitlement, lack of respect for his partner and for women in general. It is further about sexual ownership, possessiveness and the refusal to recognize a woman’s right to freedom of movement, freedom of expression and other basic human rights. In short, domestic violence is about treating an intimate partner as inferior based on notions of toxic masculinity. Negative attitudes about women, which are often shaped by culture, socialization and upbringing, cause some men to feel justified in using threats or violence to gain power and control over an intimate partner. Violence, however, is never justified.
In nearly all cases of domestic violence, a perpetrator purposefully keeps the victim in a controlled and dependent state because it is an effective way of keeping her trapped and powerless in a relationship. This is especially true as it relates to economic abuse, which is a deliberate attempt to control a victim’s access to shared or individual assets, such as cash, bank accounts, credit cards and business profits. Economic abuse is present in 99% of domestic violence cases, making it the most prevalent form of abuse. This lends credence to the notion that women’s employment threatens men’s authority in relationship dynamics.
By limiting the victim’s economic options, she is left with few resources and little agency. She faces immeasurable obstacles, such as the inability to obtain housing, employment, childcare, legal representation and mental health or medical services. In fact, financial factors are a strong predictor in a woman’s decision to stay, leave or return to an abusive relationship. Thus, it is a problem that warrants special attention.
Workplace Abuse Defined
Workplace abuse is an extension of an abuser’s desire to gain economic power and control. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it costs victims a total of 8 million days of paid work each year, or the equivalent of more than 32,000 full-time jobs, and $1.8 billion in lost productivity for employers. Additionally, it costs $4.1 billion per year in medical and mental health care costs, which can persist up to 15 years after the abuse ends.
Some examples of workplace abuse include when a perpetrator:
- Harasses, stalks, assaults, disrupts, intimidates and threatens the victim;
- Prevents the victim from attending work or a job interview;
- Repeatedly texts or calls the victim at work;
- Demands that the victim quit her job; and/or
- Sabotages the victim’s employment, causing her to be disciplined, demoted or terminated.
Up to 30% of victims lose their jobs due to domestic violence. Some warning signs that an employee may be a victim of abuse are:
- Change in job performance, poor concentration, errors, slowness, inconsistent work quality;
- Excessive absenteeism and tardiness;
- Requests for special accommodations, such as requests to leave early or to change schedules;
- Isolated, unusually quiet and keeping away from others; and
- Emotional distress, flatness, tearfulness, depression, or anxiety.
Over 70 percent of United States workplaces have no formal program or policy that addresses workplace violence. Thus, there are inadequate safeguards to protect most victims at their jobs. The consequences can be devastating or fatal.
My Personal Workplace Battle
Some years ago, I was employed as in-house counsel for a labor union. I was also the co-owner of a San Diego employment and labor law firm with my spouse, a fellow attorney. We shared an office suite and interacted on a professional basis regularly. For a long time, though, I kept a dark secret. I was being abused by my spouse both at home and in the workplace. I was extremely fearful of him.
Gradually over time, my abuser gained control by using threats, intimidation and physical force. For example, he routinely threw things at me, kicked doors, punched holes in walls, yelled and belittled me. He also put his hands on me, though he was careful never to leave a bruise or mark. On one occasion, he berated me for withdrawing a nominal amount of cash from an ATM to cover a business lunch. Another time, he became infuriated because I had received a top Avvo attorney rating and he had not. He proceeded to verbally abuse me, putting down my intelligence, denigrating my legal skills and minimize the value of the attorney rating. I felt worthless.
There were other inequities as well. For one, our law firm name did not reflect my role as an equal partner. The business was initially called “Ochoa Legal Group” after my abuser with no mention of me. This was humiliating. Further, while we were both tenants in an office building, the lease was signed and controlled by him. This allowed my abuser to lock me out of the office when I ended our relationship and served him with divorce papers. His actions were malicious, cruel and vengeful—exactly what I had feared. This was followed by cutting me off from work emails, files, phones, legal materials, etc., and sabotaging my employment as in-house counsel with the labor union by falsely depicting me as “irrational” and “crazy” to my supervisor. I went from being an award-winning union attorney and small business owner to jobless with no income.
Breaking the Cycle of Abuse
My story has a happy ending. Recently, my divorce became final after years of fighting for my freedom in family court. I moved cross-country with full legal and physical custody of my child and started a new job at Harvard Law School. I also founded the organization, SOAR for Justice, which has as its mission to help survivors of abuse have a stronger voice for change. I am currently also a victim’s rights pro bono attorney, helping low-income and immigrant women with domestic violence restraining orders.
Getting from point A to point B was honestly no easy task. My abuser strategically gained economic control, depriving me of hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential income. He further engaged in a smear campaign to marginalize me from my professional colleagues and clients. This assured I would have no job prospects in my niche practice area. He feigned innocence, denied and minimized the abuse, and was believed by many because of his “good” public reputation and successful career. This added a layer of complexity to my situation.
I reached out for help, which was an important first step for breaking the cycle of abuse. I turned to the National Domestic Violence Hotline for free and confidential help. I developed a safety plan and went to my local Family Justice Center for free counseling to deal with the anxiety and Post-Traumatic stress symptoms inflicting me. I retained attorneys to help me with the legal process and I joined a network of other domestic violence survivors to provide me with moral support. It took a lot of hard work, but I eventually started to regain control of my financial affairs and career.
Workplace abuse is a serious problem. I firmly believe that rebounding from financial devastation is not an insurmountable task. More should be done, certainly, to raise awareness about workplace abuse and build momentum with #MetToo and #TimesUp.
Employers and labor unions are uniquely positioned to take the lead on this issue by establishing policies and contract language which address domestic violence. Workers should learn how to recognize the signs of domestic violence and where to get help. The Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence offers a number of resources to address workplace abuse, including an educational video, Telling Amy’s Story, which is a case-study highlighting the warning signs of abuse in the workplace.
Finally, employees should be aware that victims of domestic violence may have certain federal and state protections against employment discrimination and harassment, workplace privacy rights and the legal right to a reasonable accommodation to perform and keep their jobs. In some cases, victims terminated from their jobs may be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits. Others may file claims with local victim compensation boards for financial assistance. Additional information for victims is available at WomensLaw.
For a related piece by Dovie King on domestic violence at the workplace, see Ending the Hurt at Work: Raising Awareness About Intimate Partner Abuse in the Workplace.
Dovie Yoana King is a public interest attorney with two decades of experience assisting low-income immigrants, women and children. She currently works at Harvard Law School, and is the Founder and Director of SOAR for Justice. Dovie is licensed to practice law in Massachusetts, California and formerly in New York (retired).