On April 10, 2017, a 53-year-old man walked into a special needs classroom in San Bernadino, California, pulled out a gun, and shot his estranged wife, 53-year-old Karen Elaine Smith. Two children standing near Smith were also hit by gunfire; 8-year-old Jonathan Martinez died later at the hospital. The gunman then turned his gun on himself.
Just two weeks later, on April 24, a Caltrans worker was arguing with his supervisor at a maintenance facility in Rio Dell, California. He pulled out a handgun and fatally shot 61-year-old Annette Brooks, before shooting himself.
It’s no coincidence that both of the victims of these fatal workplace incidents were women. Homicide is the second-leading cause of work-related death for women, second only to roadway incidents (which are the leading cause of work-related death for men and women); nearly one in five women who die at work (18 percent) die as a result of violence. Overall, violence is the fourth-leading cause of work-related deaths, but for men, it falls all the way to fifth place—only 8 percent of men who die at work die in violent incidents.
Women in the Crosshairs
There are a few reasons women are more likely than men to die at work. One is that they are more likely to work in professions like nursing and social work that experience high levels of violence from customers and clients. Women also make up about half of the retail workforce, putting them at risk of robbery-related violence.
But, regardless of profession, all women are at far higher risk than their male counterparts of what is called “domestic violence workplace spillover.” It is just what it sounds like: violent men, like Karen Elaine Smith’s estranged husband, track down their girlfriends, wives, estranged wives, or ex-wives at work, with murderous intent.
Don’t Fight Fire with Firings
Victims of domestic violence are at increased risk at work because it’s often more difficult for them to change their workplace than it is to change their residence or their phone number. It’s easier to find them at work. And when an abuser tracks down his victim at work, other people in the workplace are often at risk—sometimes co-workers, sometimes children like Jonathan Martinez.
For this reason, some employers have chosen to minimize risk in the workplace by simply firing women who are known to be victims of domestic violence, or who have obtained an order of protection against a significant other. Holy Trinity School in El Cajon notoriously took this route when it fired second-grade teacher Carie Charlesworth after a domestic violence incident involving her husband, who came onto school grounds. A study conducted in 2011 by the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center’s Project SURVIVE found that nearly 40 percent of domestic violence victims have been fired or feared being fired as a result of domestic violence. One victim reported being refused entry to her office to retrieve her possessions or say goodbye to co-workers.
This is now illegal in California, as the result of a law that took effect in 2014. Senate Bill 400, introduced by State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) and signed by Governor Jerry Brown in 2013 prohibits California employers from firing or discriminating against an employee who has been a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. The law instead requires employers to make reasonable efforts to protect these victims from their abuser or stalker.
Protecting Women and the Workplace
In order to protect women who have been victims of violence, as well as everyone else in the workplace, employers should take positive steps that include:
- Encouraging reporting. Women must feel comfortable telling their employer about violent partners, sexual assaults or stalkers, because protective measures can’t be put in place unless the employer knows about the situation.
- Making reasonable changes. It’s important to make the worker more difficult to find. This can be done by changing the worker’s number, relocating her desk or classroom or moving her to a different work location (for example, a different retail outlet) and adjusting her work schedule to the extent possible.
- Securing the workplace. It can be difficult to restrict access to some workplaces, for example, in the restaurant and retail industry, but this should be done to the extent possible. Managers and security personnel should have photographs of and be able to recognize the offender; if he is seen on-site, security and the police should be immediately notified. Special precautions may be needed while the victim is arriving at and departing from the workplace.
- Preparing a safety plan. Victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking can prepare a safety plan that addresses their security at all times, including during work hours. Several templates are available from domestic-violence prevention organizations, including this one from the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence.