NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–A flowerpot to the face from her ex-husband left Adriana Becerril a pulverized mess of blood, bruises and bumps while their four children screamed.
Injured and unable to report to her first day of work as the director at a Bronx preschool in September 2006, she sought four days of recommended medical leave and, after speaking to employees, thought she would begin the following week instead. She said she didn’t want to start work with the children while her face was bruised and swollen.
Four days later, she received a letter by FedEx informing her that she was fired.
Becerril is suing the nonprofit New York child-care agency Graham Windham and one of the day-care centers it runs, Grow With Us Preschool in the South Bronx. Her lawsuit invokes a 2003 amendment to the New York City Human Rights Law that requires employers to reasonably accommodate the needs of domestic violence victims. Becerril, who now works at a different Bronx day care, is suing for lost wages, compensation and benefits along with compensatory damages for injury to her reputation and emotional and mental distress.
“I wasn’t going to do anything in the beginning,” said Becerril, who was initially unaware of the law and is only the second person to invoke it in a legal proceeding. “But then I thought about it, and I thought, ‘If I don’t do anything about it, they’re going to do it to somebody else.'”
In an Internet search she found New York-based firm Tuckner, Sipser, Weinstock and Sipser, which specializes in women’s issues. She called right away.
“She’s a model case,” said attorney Jack Tuckner, who said the law is chipping away at the stigma facing abuse victims.
“I am just doing something that a lot of women that want to do it, don’t do it, because they’re scared that people are going to point at them and say, ‘Look at her, she was beaten by her husband,'” Becerril said. “I’m not afraid of what people say. If you don’t stand up, they’re going to keep doing it to you.”
Safety First Motto
A spokesperson for Graham Windham declined to comment on the case because it is pending.
On its Web site, the agency outlines six core values. The first is safety. “If we cannot keep our children and families safe, we cannot be effective helpers. Safety comes first . . . always.”
Becerril’s case is “just getting cooking,” Tuckner said, adding that it can take up to five years for a civil case to go to trial in the Bronx. He hopes the case, and the law, will bolster a wave of similar laws around the country designed to provide security to domestic violence victims when they need it most.
Eleven states have laws that prohibit employers from discriminating against crime victims or specify domestic violence victims. Most of those states–such as North Carolina and Colorado–protect victims who take leave related to the abuse. Illinois law includes sexual assault and stalking in its definition of protected victims and bars employers from taking action against a victim because of an abuser’s disruptive actions, such as one spouse terrorizing the other at work.
Some pending state legislation trickled up from the local level, such as a New York state bill that closely followed the New York City amendment and a 2005 amendment to suburban Westchester County’s human rights law that protects victims’ employment and housing. The state legislation faltered in 2006 without becoming law.
Florida’s Miami-Dade County law provides domestic violence victims up to 30 days of unpaid leave and forbids employers to retaliate against the employee for exercising these rights. Five bills have been introduced in the Florida Legislature since 2006 that echo the Miami-Dade law, proposing paid leave and making leave requests confidential, but the state has passed none.
Avenue of Relief
The New York City law could provide a bigger avenue of relief, according to Tuckner, if more victims knew about it.
Many people still think they can be fired for reporting sexual harassment, he said, let alone requesting time off related to abuse. The lack of knowledge coupled with a tendency to ignore the problem or try to handle it personally, he said, explains why Becerril is only the second person to test the law.
“It’s just not the type of case that they come out of the woodwork for,” Tuckner said.
Up to one-half of all domestic violence victims say abuse played a part in losing a job, and 50 percent say they lost a job after the crime was committed, according to New York-based Legal Momentum, a women’s advocacy law group.
About 1.3 million women and 835,000 men are physically assaulted by a partner each year in the United States, according to the National Institute of Justice, a research agency of the U.S. Justice Department.
The New York City law is designed to make it easier for victims to disclose their situations to employers and request accommodations such as time off for injuries or court dates.
“It took a long time for people to accept that domestic violence was a crime,” said Maya Raghu, senior staff attorney at Legal Momentum. “It takes another step to say, ‘What are the other issues being faced?'”
Creating Safe Workplaces
Employers fear an abusive husband causing a scene at the workplace, but Raghu said they should work with the employee to craft a safe scenario for everyone.
“It’s a legitimate concern, but the knee-jerk reaction shouldn’t be to fire the victim, and that’ll get rid of the problem,” Raghu said.
The law’s language encourages victims to approach employers “without fear of reprisal, about a domestic violence incident or about possible steps that will enhance their ability to perform their job” without extra hardship to the employer.
Employment can be an anchor for abuse victims. Besides providing a safe haven and a source of self-worth, survivors often need the economic stability to plan an exit strategy.
“Being able to maintain their job would allow people in this situation to say, ‘I have something . . . If I can keep my job, then I can put aside some money, and maybe I can leave,'” Raghu said.
The first person to test the city’s law was Gina Reynolds, a probation officer at the New York Department of Corrections who was fired when she fled her abusive husband, breaking the company’s policy to stay at home when taking sick leave.
In 2004 New York State Supreme Court Justice Louis B. York ruled that the Department of Corrections failed to make reasonable accommodations for Reynolds, leaving her without a job when she was in the process of finally leaving her husband. The judge ordered Reynolds reinstated to her position with back pay.
Alison Bowen is a freelance reporter based in New York City.
This series is supported by a special grant from Mary Kay Inc.
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