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Racial harassment against Asian Americans at work during COVID-19

Mar 3, 2021 | Discrimination, EEOC, Employment Law

U.S. media outlets have reported many instances of increased harassment and violence against people of Asian descent since the onset of COVID-19, which originated in Wuhan City, China. For example, 58% of Asian adults feel that people more commonly say racially insensitive things about Asian people than they did before the pandemic, according to the Pew Research Center.

According to the magazine Occupational Health & Safety, retaliation toward people of particular ethnic heritages has historically risen during various pandemics, so the current phenomenon is no different. But Asian Americans and other Asian people in the U.S. who are employed here have the right to be protected from workplace harassment based on race or national origin, which is considered a type of unlawful discrimination under federal and state anti-discrimination laws.

Employees have the legal right to protection from harassment

This should put employers in Maryland, Virginia and D.C. on notice that their employees of Asian heritage may now be at higher risk of unlawful harassment based on race in the workplace. Most employers have the duty to protect workers from illegal harassment based on race or national origin and during the novel coronavirus outbreak.

They should make sure their workforce knows about employer policies and procedures regarding discrimination and harassment, including a no-tolerance policy, a reporting structure and policies for remedying the situation.

This harassment can come in many forms. Examples include:

  • Verbal slurs, intimidating remarks, name-calling and hate speech
  • Written confrontation based on race or national origin
  • Actual or digital images depicting racist images
  • Demeaning or hostile comments toward people of Asian origin or even who appear to be Asian
  • Derogatory remarks made over electronic communication devices such as during work-from-home programs during the pandemic
  • Physical intimidation like standing too close, spitting or making hostile gestures, or even assault
  • Shunning, stigmatization or isolation

Work-related harassment targeted at Asian Americans may come not only from coworkers or management, but also from others rightfully in the workplace like customers, visitors to care facilities, contractors, construction or utility workers and others.

EEOC enforcing anti-discrimination laws related to pandemic

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the primary federal agency charged with the enforcement of employment laws governing discrimination and harassment. The agency provides resources about the impact of COVID-19 on the application of these laws in the workplace.

Legal remedies may be available to those targeted with illegal harassment or discrimination through the EEOC or similar state agencies as well as through federal or state lawsuits.