In Harm's Way:  Employers Can Help Protect Workers From Domestic Abuse

Anchorage Daily News

July 1, 2004
Alyssa Gorham and her former employer Vicki Malone agree: Gorham was a dynamite employee at a busy Alaska tour company.

But the two have totally different perspectives on Gorham suddenly quitting the job she loved.

Gorham was hiding the fact that she was in a violent relationship, and finally, she said, could no longer stand the dual pressures of a controlling partner and increasing responsibility at work. Malone said she had no idea what was happening and suddenly found herself without a key employee.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao called attention to the plight of women like Gorham when she spoke Wednesday at the opening of the Alaska Summit on Violence Against Women, a three-day conference sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice. She highlighted federal programs to help domestic-violence victims get jobs and employers create safer workplaces. "Prevention is absolutely essential," Chao said. Anchorage has seen several assaults at work by estranged partners in the last 15 years, Anita Shell of the Anchorage Police Department said, including an insurance agent shot and killed at work and a UAA employee shot and wounded in a campus parking lot.

These cases are rare, but employers can take steps to support employees that would also benefit co-workers and fulfill a legal obligation to provide a safe workplace, Shell said.

A supportive environment can help employees feel comfortable asking for help too, Gorham said.

"You don't want people who respect you and rely on you to lose that respect," said Gorham, who said she was making $45,000 as a 22-year-old.

Malone, who said she had no idea what Gorham was going through, agreed that can be a concern. But, she said, most employers would bend over backwards to help a valued employee.

"She was definitely moving up the ladder here at the office," Malone said.

Most often, domestic violence shows up at work as harassment, according to state statistics and local agencies.

"I know of lots of women who say, 'I lost my job because he called me all the time there,' " said Suzi Pearson of the Anchorage women's shelter AWAIC, which offers presentations for employers on domestic violence and workplace safety.

Victims typically can change their phone numbers and addresses, the APD's Shell said. But they can't change their job and so can be found there.

But employers can take some basic steps to get women back to work, said Shannon Wadsworth, community educator at AWAIC. For instance, they can change a worker's phone number, work location or hours to thwart harassers, she said.

The University of Alaska Anchorage encourages employees to walk together to cars if they work late or call for a security escort, spokeswoman Lori Keim said. Receptionists are trained in how to deal with anyone who is belligerent or threatening, and new hires are given a code to signal a need to call police.

Receptionists can keep a photo of anyone who should not be allowed in, Shell said.

Employment lawyer Helena Hall said employers have options. They could put employees on administrative leave during a difficult period, hire extra security or take advantage of Alaska's anti-stalking law to get help from police. Hall also recommended employees get restraining orders as another protective tool.

Gorham said her situation changed when she landed in the hospital and a doctor refused to release her unless she got a restraining order.

When Gorham interviewed for new jobs after several months of full-time court battles, she said she felt awkward mentioning her situation, but it was worth it. She asked her new employer for some protective measures and got them.

"They've been very protective of me, and just the peace of mind is a tremendous benefit," she said.

Still, she misses her old job. Gorham said she now makes $18,000 a year working part-time in administration.

Gorham encouraged co-workers and managers to speak out if they see harassing behavior. Her former co-workers took the attitude that her partner was a jerk, she said, but didn't say or do anything.

"They didn't intervene," Gorham said, when they could have taken a stance of no tolerance for any kind of abuse at work by anyone.

"When people don't speak out," Gorham said, "it allows the problem to grow."

Malone said if Gorham's performance had wavered, that would have been reason to speak to her.

"But there's also a line of privacy," Malone said. "When they're doing a dynamite job and seem happy and friendly," she said, it's hard to intervene. "I wish Alyssa would've come to me and asked me for help."

Gorham said she couldn't have.

"I wasn't strong enough to bring it up at that point," Gorham said. "I will speak out now so an employer won't have to feel bad or uncomfortable to confront an employee and say, 'Hey, do you need help?' "