Friday, October 30, 2015

Another Hurdle:
Domestic Violence Survivors'
Battles in the Courts

By David Ward

“The most horrible sufferings have been not only physical, they have been emotional, psychological, and financial! He never stops
harassing me—the courts are his legal playgrounds.”

Have you ever thought of the court as someone’s “legal playground”? These are the words of a domestic violence survivor who, even after separating herself from her abuser, continued to face abuse in an arena she believed would provide protection: the courts.

And she isn’t alone. Domestic violence is about power and control, and the abuser’s need for those things doesn’t stop if and when a survivor chooses to leave. So it is often the case that abusers will try to use the legal system to continue exerting power and control over the survivor, often for years after the relationship has ended. We call this pattern of abuse abusive litigation—also sometimes referred to as retaliatory litigation, legal bullying, paper abuse, and stalking through the courts—and is pervasive in courtrooms across the country.

Abusive litigation can take many forms. The abuser can flip the story, portraying himself as the victim by seeking his own protection order against the survivor or her family out of retaliation. He can sue the survivor for defamation if she reports his abuse. Or, most commonly, he can use child custody or divorce proceedings to repeatedly force the survivor into court, seeking modifications to the parenting plan or filing frivolous motions to delay the process. Essentially, an abuser can turn the courts into another weapon against the survivor.

Legal Voice has worked tirelessly in courts and legislatures to ensure the law is on the side of survivors. We’ve secured workplace rights for survivors, helped to uphold and strengthen Washington’s domestic violence protection order (DVPO) process, and protected survivors from housing discrimination. But we know that changing the law is not enough. We need to make sure that our courts are also educated about domestic violence, including abusive litigation.

Over the past year, we have done in-person trainings with judges and attorneys on this problem, teaching them to recognize the patterns of abusive litigation and to address the issue within their courtrooms. We were especially excited to present a training on abusive litigation earlier this year to 140 Washington judges at this year’s Spring Judicial Conference. Additionally, the dedicated volunteers on our Violence Against Women Workgroup and I have written a chapter on abusive litigation that will be included in the new update of Washington State’s Domestic Violence Manual for Judges, an important guide that is distributed to every judge in the state. And I am currently writing an article on abusive litigation for the Seattle Journal for Social Justice, based on interviews our workgroup conducted with survivors and advocates.

This week concludes Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but we know that awareness of the many issues impacting the lives of survivors and their families must continue year-round. And you can be sure that we will continue our work to stop abusers from misusing the courts as their “legal playgrounds.”

David Ward is Legal & Legislative Counsel at Legal Voice, where his work focuses on gender violence, family law, and LGBT rights.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Standing (or Sitting!)
with Pregnant Workers

By Heidi Garcia

Being pregnant is hard. You’re tired all the time and are probably worried about what will happen next, constantly asking yourself things like: 
  • How much leave can I afford to take and will it be enough?
  • Will my partner have sufficient time off to bond with the baby?
  • How am I going to find and pay for childcare that I like?
  • What will my leave and new responsibilities mean for my career progression?
  • How am I going to pay for everything my child needs for the next 18 (or more) years?
Add to that the feeling that you can’t meet your employer’s expectations because you’re pregnant, and there's no question that pregnancy can be a very stressful time.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) would help address this stress and ensure healthy pregnancies by requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations—much like they are already required to do for people with disabilities—for pregnant women. In most situations, being pregnant doesn’t mean that the woman can’t do her job. It just means that she can’t do it in precisely the way non-pregnant employees could. For example, she may need to sit down during her shift, alter a uniform, carry a water bottle with her, or get assistance lifting heavy objects. Around the country, pregnant women have been fired for requesting these kinds of accommodations, even when the affected activity was not a regular part of the woman’s job.

Sadly, these things continue to happen despite existing protections such as the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, and despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Young v. UPS. The Court held in Young that when an employer accommodates workers who are similar to pregnant workers in their ability to work, it cannot refuse to accommodate pregnant workers who need accommodations simply because it “is more expensive or less convenient” to accommodate pregnant women too. But the Young test isn’t very straight-forward, and that’s where the PWFA comes in: by taking the familiar framework from disability law that employers and courts are accustomed to applying—"reasonable accommodation"—and applying the concept to pregnant women. Because while being pregnant isn’t a disability per se, it can bring challenges and limitations. 

Legislation protecting pregnant workers will help level the playing field and ensure equal employment opportunities for more women. Women make up roughly half of all workers in the U.S., and more than 40% of mothers are the sole or primary breadwinners in their households. Ensuring that women who are physically able to work can continue to do so is in the best interest not only of the woman and her growing family, but also her employer (who will ultimately save money by not having to hire and train a new employee) and society as a whole.

Heidi Garcia, a member of the Legal Voice Board of Directors, is expecting her first child in early December. Although she’s grateful that her job doesn’t require heavy lifting or being on her feet all day, the amount of sleep she suddenly requires is often at odds with the expectations put on her at work.

Photo courtesy of hugrakka.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Turbulence in Tech:
How Women at Amazon Face Unjust Ultimatums

By Samantha Mahool

Thanks to the New York Times article “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” published in August, it is no secret that the demands made of Amazon employees are drastic, if not callous. While Jeff Bezos scrambled to assure the public of his commitment to employee satisfaction, he also had to address Amazon’s insufficient female leadership and the undue burden faced by working parents.

Amazon requires a dedication from employees that is as unrelenting as it is unreasonable—a requirement especially apparent to employees who are also caregivers. Since women are still the primary caregivers in most families, corporations with such outrageous demands are setting women up to fail. The article details several stories from women who have experienced this system first-hand: One employee was told that “raising children would most likely prevent her from success at a higher level because of the long hours required” and she should seek a less competitive position. Another was explicitly told the day after a miscarriage that Amazon may not be right for her considering she was trying to start a family. And yet another woman was placed on performance-improvement plans as a ridiculous penalty following the loss of a stillborn child. What message does this send to any employee at Amazon who seeks to be competitive in their workforce while also nurturing a healthy family life?

It’s the same message sent to many working parents in the industry—you can’t do both. 

Of course, Amazon’s problem isn’t just the way they treat women; it’s also the fact that they don’t have equality in hiring to begin with. Contrary to the confident and varied faces on Amazon’s diversity page, the company has much to accomplish in terms of parity. While Amazon employs a higher percentage of women than comparable companies (37%), only 18% of leadership positions are held by women. In addition, the top leadership team at Amazon does not feature any women at all. (The paltry percentage of women working in any role at Amazon is still more than other industry leaders such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, Apple, Intel, and Microsoft. Of these companies, Facebook boasts the most women in leadership positions at a meager 23%.)

Unfortunately, these statistics are not surprising, and the demanding office culture brought to light by the Times article is not unique to Amazon, but represents an exaggerated dynamic present in many science and technology jobs. Women workers are often deprived of equal opportunity in the workplace because of harassment, gender stereotyping, and discrimination based on pregnancy and gender identity. And as recently displayed by a tasteless advertisement from an Issaquah-based real estate company, stereotypes of working mothers abound.

While national attention is fixed on Amazon and other similar workplace cultures, now is a great time to push legislative reform for the important economic justice issues faced by women nationwide. Legislators and corporate leadership need to realize that there isn’t just one thing that contributes to the gender wage gap, so there isn’t just one thing that will close it. We need to increase access to family leave and paid sick & safe days, address gender stereotyping that leads to occupational segregation, and support working parents rather than forcing them to choose between a career and a family life.

And we need to call on tech companies to be a part of the solution instead of adding to the problem. Show us an industry leader not just in profits and product innovations, but in the movement to prioritize the representation of women and other marginalized populations. Hire women, believe in women, put women in leadership roles, and through it all, give women the support needed to succeed.

Samantha Mahool is an author and activist based out of Seattle, Washington. In addition to wrangling children as a nanny, Samantha also commits much of her time to volunteer work at various local organizations whose missions reflect her dedication to justice and equality.

Photo courtesy of Viktor Hanacek | PicJumbo

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The (Dis)Ability to Choose
The Intersection of Reproductive
and Disability Rights

By Alison DeBoise

Advances in prenatal testing allow healthcare providers to determine if a fetus will have a genetic disability. This development, and how it relates to a pregnant person’s right to choose how to proceed with the pregnancy, has been the subject of much discussion among advocates for both reproductive rights and disability rights. But you may not realize that, through a reproductive justice lens, both groups of advocates are fighting the same fight.

Prenatal testing is viewed by some as harmless expansion of choice. Knowledge of genetic disability allows pregnant people and their families to make informed decisions about their pregnancies, and the births and lives of their children. They may choose to use this information to prepare emotionally, financially, and physically for the unique care the child may require; start marshalling resources and support for the care of the child; terminate the pregnancy; or prepare for the child’s adoption.

But a pregnant person’s ability to make the choice is highly constrained by societal factors. The complicated ethics that accompany advances in prenatal testing not only hinge on the right to choose whether or not to have a child (birth versus abortion), but also the right to be supported in that choice (access to abortion care versus family support services). The reality remains that there is a substantial lack of access to societal and material support for a pregnant person choosing either to terminate the pregnancy or raise a disabled child.

Pregnant people need to be supported in their choice to terminate a pregnancy even if that choice was primarily informed by the knowledge that their child would be born with a genetic disability. But pregnant people’s ability to make that choice is being eroded at a rapid rate. In addition to the common barriers pregnant people face in seeking quality and affordable abortion care, several states are attempting to prohibit abortion based on knowledge of genetic disability.

For many pregnant people, the choice is further complicated by their socioeconomic status. Financial instability may prevent a person from being able to make the decision to terminate, as many pregnant people cannot afford the time off work for the procedure, do not have a means to travel to the nearest clinic (38% of women do not have a clinic within their county), or cannot afford the procedure due to a disparity in insurance coverage. But that same lack of funding may prevent a person from being able to care for a child with a disability. While the pregnant person might desire to have and raise the child regardless of disability, they may decide to terminate nonetheless because they do not have the time, familial support, or financial stability to care for a disabled child.

Pregnant people also need to be supported in their choice to raise a child with a genetic disability. Parents need access to institutional programs such as subsidized and free childcare, monetary assistance, and caregiving support. Socially, parents need programs that work to change ableist attitudes that result in discrimination in schools, the workplace, and the design of the physical landscape to ensure their child has a high quality of life.

Despite some legislators’ attempts to pit reproductive rights and disability rights advocates against each other, both groups tend to recognize that unconstrained choice means not only having the right to choose, but also having the right to be supported in that choice. This illustrates where advocacy for reproductive rights and disability rights intersect to form reproductive justice. We must work together to ensure accessible social services for people with disabilities and their caregivers, promote accurate information about disability absent of ableist rhetoric, and continue educating others of the fact that we all—disabled and otherwise—benefit from a society that allows us the right and the support to make our own reproductive choices.

Alison DeBoise is a volunteer at Legal Voice and a rising third-year student at Smith College. She is passionate about the intersections of disability rights, reproductive justice, and LGBT+ rights.

Photo courtesy of Phalinn Ooi

Monday, August 3, 2015

In Celebration of World Breastfeeding Week

By Jennifer Werdell

It’s World Breastfeeding Week! While I probably would not have known that before I started volunteering with Legal Voice, I am grateful to take this opportunity to reflect on how privileged I am – to be a mother to two beautiful and healthy children, to live in a place where my children have access to nutritious food every day, and to work in an environment where breastfeeding mothers are provided with the flexibility and resources to be able to continue to feed their babies after they go back to work.

I am not going to lie – I didn’t like breastfeeding, and I truly hated pumping at work. But I was grateful that breastfeeding was an option for me and that I was able to exercise my right to do so. Yet, even in 2015, a supportive culture for breastfeeding is surprisingly absent in many places, even within our own community. Whether it is a prospective politician calling a working mom “disgusting” for pumping milk or an employer refusing to allow an employee break time to breastfeed or pump, women continually find themselves in a no-win situation. Many will be judged for their decision or inability to breastfeed; many others will be chastised for doing so.

So, Washington mamas, during this national and global week of breastfeeding awareness, here is a friendly reminder that the law is on your side! You have the right to breastfeed in any public place and you cannot be discriminated against (or called out as indecent) if you chose to breastfeed your child in public. Need to breastfeed or pump at work? Federal law requires employers with over 50 employees to give moms a reasonable break time when they need to express breast milk for an infant (feeding directly or pumping), and employers must provide a clean and private place for expressing breast milk. And, by the way, no, it does not count if you are given the ‘privilege’ of sitting on a toilet in a bathroom to do so! State law also encourages employers to create policies that support breastfeeding in the workplace, like allowing flexible work schedules and providing a place to refrigerate breast milk and a way for you to clean your breastfeeding supplies. 

Talk to your employers if you are not getting the support you need to breastfeed; if you need help, check out Legal Voice's memo Breastfeeding in Washington State and resources from other great organizations. Happy breastfeeding!

Jennifer Werdell is the Associate Director of Seattle University School of Law’s Access to Justice Institute. She has been participating with Legal Voice’s Self Help Committee since 2012.

Photo courtesy of Jem Grismshaw | Daily Cloudt