When extraordinary circumstances arise, it seems people often look for a scapegoat to wrongfully place blame. We have seen discrimination of this type demonstrated against people of Middle Eastern descent following the terrorist attacks of September 11. We have also seen instances following the Swine Flu Pandemic of 2009 against people of Mexican and Latino descent and following the Ebola Epidemic of 2013, against people of African descent. This same ugly tendency has again resurfaced in 2020 because of COVID-19.
In the wake of COVID-19, employers should be aware of possible discrimination and harassment that employees of Asian or specifically Chinese descent may face. Misconceptions and false stereotypes surrounding people of those origins and COVID-19 are becoming more prevalent, so much so that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has urged employers and employees to stay mindful of instances of harassment, intimidation, or discrimination in the workplace and issued guidance on such. Still, reports of anti-Asian assaults, harassment, and hate crimes have sadly continued to rise. Of utmost importance is protecting your employees’ right to be free from discrimination based on race and national origin under Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964.
Recently, Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, began tracking reports of harassment of Asian Americans. The website, dubbed “Stop AAPI Hate,” has received over 1,900 reports of incidents of harassment in its first eight weeks. Incidents in the workplace make up 4.8% of these reports. One report stated, I was accused of having the “Chinese virus” by a co-worker after coughing due to my spring allergies, which prompted many colleagues to avoid me for the rest of the day. The co-worker has since been released and relations have returned to normal, but I still can’t help but think back to the incident from time to time.
Another report stated that they were jokingly accused of eating a bat. It goes without saying that even comments made in “jest” are unacceptable and should not be tolerated. It is these comments disguised as jokes that employers should be especially aware of during this time.
Employers can also help protect their employees by being aware, informed, and prepared. First, employers should be aware of this stigma that is hurting Asian-Americans. Per the CDC, this “stigma is associated with a lack of knowledge about how COVID-19 spreads, a need to blame someone, fears about disease and death, and gossip that spreads rumors and myths.” Harassment of this nature may amount to liability under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Additionally, in Ohio, human resource officers, supervisors, and managers can be personally liable for violating Ohio’s workplace discrimination statute.
Once you are aware of the stigma, you can help fight it by staying informed. Stop the comments before they are made. Lack of information about COVID-19 contributes to this stigma, and therefore, it is important to point to credible sources for information. These sources include the CDC, Ohio Department of Health, World Health Organization, and publications by the Federal Government. The EEOC Guidance suggests that employers can help reduce the chance of harassment by explicitly communicating to the workforce that fear of the COVID-19 pandemic should not be misdirected against individuals because of a protected characteristic, including their national origin, race, or other prohibited bases.
Lastly, once you are aware and informed, you need to make sure you are prepared. Employers should ensure that their workplace harassment policy comports with the following: it clearly states that harassment on any basis will not be tolerated, provides definitions and examples of harassing conduct; lists the consequences for violating the policy; provides a resource for how employees can report harassment; explains that employee reports will remain confidential (to the extent possible); expresses that reports will be responded to, promptly investigated, and effective corrective action taken when necessary; and prohibits retaliation. The EEOC Guidance also includes harassment policy tips for small businesses and a comprehensive Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace. The Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance has compiled a list of suggestions as well. These resources can be utilized in order to ensure a harassment free workplace to ensure that all employees feel safe and welcome in your workplace.