New California Law Protects Victims of Domestic Violence against Workplace Discrimination

After Carie Charlesworth was terminated from her teaching job due to security concerns about her estranged husband, the California mother championed legislation to make sure no one would ever have the same experience of being fired. This past Friday, Charlesworth got her wish when Governor Brown signed a measure into law to protect victims of domestic violence from losing their jobs and workplace discrimination. The new legislation will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2014.

Charlesworth said she was put on leave from her position as a second-grade teacher at Holy Trinity School in El Cajon, California in January 2013, after her ex-husband, Martin Charlesworth, 41, showed up that month in the school parking lot, prompting a campus lockdown until the police arrived. The couple divorced two years ago and Charlesworth said she got a restraining order against her ex-husband because he had been physically abusive. She said she also made her principal aware of the situation.

In April 2013, she received a notice that said the “unfortunate and challenging situation” created by her ex-husband would result in her contract not being renewed for the upcoming school year.
The letter stated: “In the interest of the safety of the students, faculty and parents at Holy Trinity School, we simply cannot allow you to return to work there or, unfortunately, at any other school in the Diocese,” school officials wrote. “Therefore, you will not receive a teaching agreement for the 2013-2014 school year.”

Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, had already introduced the legislation when Charlesworth joined her to push for reform. Jackson said the new law “protects victims from job loss and discrimination at a time when they most need support and a steady paycheck.”

“Victims will no longer fear losing their livelihoods and being re-victimized in the workplace because of the actions of their abusers. They will no longer fear retribution if they talk about these issues with an employer. And we will no longer send the mistaken message to employees that silence about these issues in the workplace is the same as safety,” Jackson said in a statement.

Without the protection in place, Jackson said, victims will stay silent out of fear of being fired from their jobs. She cited a recent study by the Legal Aid Society’s Employment Law Center, which found that nearly 40 percent of victims in California reported either being fired or feared losing their jobs due to domestic violence.

For Charlesworth, her job was more than just a paycheck. It was also her “safe place.”
“It was my stability and a place I knew I could go to where I knew I wouldn’t be distracted about what was going on outside of work,” she said.

In September, Charlesworth filed a lawsuit against the diocese contesting her dismissal. She said the diocese hasn’t been served yet with legal papers.

Diocese officials could not be reached for comment today, but in a statement issued to the San Diego Union-Tribune last week, diocese officials said they are “confident that when the court is able to review the decision, the protection and safety of children will be understood as the only path the school could have taken.”

Charlesworth said she has since placed her children in public school. She’s also taking some pre-requisite classes and hopes to apply to a nursing program if she can get grants or scholarships to cover her tuition and related costs. “Financially I’m hoping it’s an option,” she said. “But it’s hard to go back to school with four kids.

I anticipate that the as the courts tackle this new legislation, just like in many other areas of employment and anti-discrimination laws, they will have to come up with some kind of balancing test that will take into account the need for protecting those who can be placed at risk due to the violent spouse’s behavior and the need to protect the victim-spouse from discrimination and from suffering even more than she already does, such as losing a job, etc.

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