Are Wisconsin employers discriminating against domestic violence victims?

When people hear the word “discrimination,” they likely think about prejudices related to things like race, gender, nationality or sexuality. A lesser-known form of employment discrimination may be on the rise.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is worried that employers are beginning to discriminate against victims of domestic violence, in fear of the abusive partner bringing the violence into the workplace. We are well aware of this concern here in Wisconsin after a tragic incident took place in October when a woman’s estranged husband opened fire in the suburban Milwaukee salon where she worked, killing her and two other salon employees. While employers may have legitimate concerns about violence in the workplace because of tragedies like this, is it legal to discriminate against victims of domestic violence?

Victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking are not a specific protected class under anti-discrimination laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act or Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but the EEOC has recently stated that such people may still be protected from discrimination under federal law.

This is because workers who are fired or denied employment because they are a known victim of domestic violence may be able to file a claim under another area of employment law such as sex-based stereotyping or harassment.

The EEOC recently issued a fact sheet to employers about the legal risks that come into play when an employer fires, demotes or refuses to hire a worker because the worker is in a violent relationship. This has been regarded by some as a clear signal that the EEOC will attempt to use existing laws as an umbrella to protect such workers from discrimination.

While this is a very complicated area of employment law, it is a reminder that victims of any type of employment discrimination may be wise to seek legal counsel to learn about their options.

Of course, employers who fear an episode of workplace violence may be wise to speak to law enforcement as well as an employment law attorney as soon as possible to learn what safeguards are possible.

Source: Inside Counsel, “EEOC warns employers of discrimination related to domestic violence,” Mary Swanton, Dec. 21, 2012

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