By Alaine Griffin, The Hartford Courant
Heather Gillies won praise for her work as a children’s librarian at the Stonington Free Library. She was dedicated to the job, so much so that she performed a story-time program for children shortly after being beaten, allegedly by her husband.
But commitment to her job meant nothing to her bosses after they learned she was a battered wife, Gillies says in a recently filed lawsuit. The lawsuit accuses the library of wrongful discharge, firing Gillies in part because she was a victim of domestic violence.
Not so, says the library, which is denying Gillies’ charges in a 27-page answer to her complaint. The library says it accommodated Gillies when she needed time off and supported her when employees there learned about the abuse.
The legal battle, brewing in Superior Court in New London, has captured the attention of advocates against domestic violence, who are crediting Gillies with shining light on what they say is the often overlooked issue of how the workplace deals with employees struggling with family violence.
Too often, advocates say, victims may not get the help they need because of fear that doing so may cost them their jobs.
And if the abuse does end up leaving them jobless, advocates say, victims often lack the resources needed to take legal action, a move that could make their personal lives public and force them to admit that they are victims of domestic violence.
“Do you know how many Heather Gillies there could be? I would be willing to bet thousands a year,” said Erika M. Tindill, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “It is quite frankly an act of courage to come forward and say, ‘I am a victim of domestic violence and I was let go.’”
The case made headlines in the Connecticut Law Tribune in late September. Superior Court Judge A. Susan Peck, responding to motions filed in the case, said employers could not fire people on the basis of their being domestic violence victims. The judge said the firing violated a clear public policy exception in Connecticut’s “at-will employment” doctrine, which otherwise allows employers to fire employees for any reason — or no reason at all.
The judge said Gillies had no clear statutory remedy for being fired as a victim of domestic violence. In his story about the ruling, writer Thomas B. Scheffey, said Gillies’ case “could be pioneering.”
Gillies declined to talk to The Courant about her lawsuit but her attorney, Deborah L. McKenna, said the decision to take legal action against the library was not an easy one for Gillies, the mother of two children.
“She’s incredibly brave to do this,” McKenna said. “It took her a long time to decide to do this. Part of her decision to do it was based on her wanting to stand up for other victims.”
But Jean E. Tomasco, the lawyer for the library, said the library “absolutely denies” Gillies’ claims that she was fired because she was a domestic violence victim. She said Gillies’ charges of wrongful discharge are not valid legal claims.
In their answer to Gillies’ complaint, the library said Gillies was fired because of her “lengthy absences” and “uncertainty” about whether she could return to “full-time productive work.” Both Gillies’ complaint and the library’s answer refer to time Gillies took off to care for a friend and a relative, but the terms of those absences and whether Gillies did work for the library during those times is in dispute.
Also in the answer to Gillies’ complaint, Tomasco said state law provides employment protection for witnesses and victims of certain crimes and that Gillies failed to take legal action within the 90-day mandated deadline from the date she was fired.
According to the lawsuit, Gillies was beaten on the night of Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2007, resulting in “multiple bruises, contusions, a cranial sprain and muscle soreness.”
Since Thursdays were her day off, she reported back to work at the library on Friday, Feb. 9, 2007, and read to a group of children. But Gillies’ injuries were tough to hide that day, and the lawsuit says she became ill. This prompted Gillies to tell the library’s interim director about the beating. Gillies said her “spouse was abusive,” and that she was seeking a restraining order, the lawsuit states.
The interim director told Gillies to take a “few days of sick time to recover” from the injuries. Four days later, the interim director called Gillies about a meeting to discuss concerns the library had “about the implications of the restraining order.”
At the meeting, Gillies was urged to take a four-week paid leave of absence and to not work, even from home. The library board also discussed “safety issues for the library” and “wanted assurances” that Gillies would continue with counseling, the lawsuit states. The board wanted to know the identity of her therapist but Gillies refused. The board later asked Gillies to provide updates from her therapist.
Gillies was told by the board not discuss her “situation” with others at work for fear it would “have a negative impact” and “reflect poorly” on the library, according to the lawsuit.
Nearly two months after disclosing her secret, Gillies was fired.
Fear Of Firing
The fear of getting fired is what kept Brooke McMurray silent about the abuse she endured at the hands of her husband for so many years.
About three decades ago, McMurray was a successful corporate manager married to a New York investment banker. She never talked about how she was regularly beaten at home.
She hid that life from her co-workers and sought comfort at work, a sanctuary from her personal hell and the outlet that would help her gain the financial freedom she would need once she left her husband.
But the silence made McMurray feel alone. There was no one to talk to about the abuse — domestic violence was an even more taboo subject 30 years ago — and she felt it was her fault.
“This was one of the worst secrets a person could have and it was about me and it took a lot of energy trying to pretend things were OK,” McMurray said. “If somebody had said, ‘I know what you’re going through, here’s a phone number you can call,’ it would have helped me refocus that energy.”
Though McMurray was able to leave her husband and achieve work success, she believes the ability to address the domestic violence at work would have helped her break free sooner.
“It could have lessened the amount of pain and perhaps the length of time it took me to leave,” McMurray said.
McMurray, now 60, is helping victims of abuse get the support they need from their employers through her work with Safe Horizon, a New York-based organization dedicated to preventing and providing resources for domestic violence in the workplace.
Employers are often reluctant to get into the personal lives of workers and fear exposing their other employees to the dangers of an abusive relationship. But not addressing domestic violence in the workplace could cost a company money in lost productivity, increased medical claims, absenteeism and legal battles, domestic violence advocates say.
The hardest part is making companies understand how they will be impacted by domestic violence because advocates say employers — particularly at the highest levels — may not realize it is happening in their workforce.
For example, McMurray pointed to a September 2007 survey titled “Corporate Leaders and America’s Workforce on Domestic Violence.” The study, commissioned by Safe Horizon, the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence, and Liz Claiborne Inc., found that chief executive officers in various companies believe 6 percent of their full-time employees are affected by domestic violence.
Employees surveyed, however, put the number higher, at 18 percent.
“That disconnect is what we are talking about here,” McMurray said.
To make sure such a disconnect is absent from the workplace, Verizon Wireless, which employs 85,000 people nationwide, continually tries to improve its response to domestic violence, an agenda the company began more than 10 years ago with a program that donated cellphones to women’s shelters.
Verizon is among several companies nationwide tackling domestic violence head-on with poster campaigns, discussion of the issue at benefits fairs, the distribution of literature aimed at helping victims, and the inclusion of the company’s position on domestic violence in its employee code of business conduct.
Each year, employees — including top management — read the code and certify that they understand it.
“We make sure awareness reaches all levels, including our senior leadership,” said Laurie A. Severino, Verizon’s director of human resources for customer service in the Northeast, based in Wallingford.
When employees hear senior managers talking about domestic violence, those in troubled situations may feel less fearful of talking about their own struggles, Severino said.
“We promote the fact that there is a person they can confide in and that they can get the help they need,” she said. And at Verizon, that help has included changing a victim’s workplace phone number and work hours to adding security and possibly relocating someone out of state.
“It’s our way of showing employees we care and there are things we can do to assist and help them,” Severino said.
New Laws Called For
While policies like the one put in place at Verizon Wireless and other companies show efforts are being made to address the issue of family violence victims in the workplace, domestic violence advocates say laws are what are really needed to protect these victims from discrimination.
In Connecticut, employers are prohibited from firing or penalizing an employee who attends court, is part of a police investigation, or has a restraining order. State law also allows crime victims to be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits in certain situations.
In addition, in a law set to take effect Jan. 1, “victims of family violence” will be able to use paid sick leave to deal with their crisis, including time for medical care, psychological counseling, help with a victims’ services organization, or relocation.
But while other states offer broader and more varied protections for domestic violence victims in the workplace, Connecticut laws against discrimination do not address domestic violence victims specifically, advocates against domestic violence say.
Those advocates say they hope legislative leaders on a recently convened domestic violence task force — scheduled to begin its work this month at the Capitol — will consider creating a general law in Connecticut that prohibits workplace discrimination against victims of domestic violence.
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