Asian American Essential Workers Face COVID-19 Racial Discrimination

Young Asian woman wearing a protective face mask to prevent the spread of germs and viruses in the city

In New York and across America, Asian American workers are facing racial discrimination because of fear related to the novel Coronavirus COVID-19. As the response to the pandemic goes on, employers will need to step up their responses to xenophobia to protect their employees from harassment and discrimination at work.

Asian Americans Face Epidemic of Racial Discrimination Due to COVID-19 Responses

Dr. Edward Chew is the head of a large Manhattan hospital’s emergency department. Understandably, he has been busy fighting the coronavirus. However, as he works hard daily to help people survive the outbreak, he has been noticing their reactions to him have changed. They try to cover their nose and mouth with their shirts as he gets close. One time, when he went to Home Depot to buy masks, face shields, and Tyvek suits for his hospital staff, he was harassed by three men in their 20s who followed him into the parking lot. He is not alone.

Across the country, Asian American workers, citizens, and permanent residents have faced harassment and even physical assaults because of their national origin. A writer for the New Yorker was cursed out while taking out her trash. A 16-year-old student was bullied and attacked by schoolmates. Another New Yorker was kicked and punched at a subway station.

Dr. Russell Jeung, Ph.D., of San Francisco State University reports that between February 9 and March 7, 2020, 471 cases of racial discrimination made their way into the America’s News database. He called these figures “just the tip of the iceberg” because only the most serious cases would be reported by the media. Dr. Jeung helped set up a website in six Asian languages to gather first-hand accounts. It had 150 reports of harassment in just a week. Benny Lou, founder of NextShark, an Asian-American news website told the New York Times:

“We’ve never received this many news tips about racism against Asians. . . . It’s crazy. My staff is pulling double duty just to keep up.”

Calling the Coronavirus the “Chinese Virus” Creates Xenophobia and Puts Asian Americans at Risk

This intense racial discrimination is likely the result of early descriptions of COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus”. Most notably, President Donald Trump repeatedly referred to the disease as “the China virus” or “the Chinese virus” until approximately March 24, 2020. He justified doing so to combat conspiracy theories saying the US military had brought the virus to China. While President Trump has since announced he was pulling back from associating the coronavirus with China, he also denied that his words were racist:

"It's not racist at all, no, not at all. It comes from China, that's why. I want to be accurate."

However, the World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended against naming conventions that convey blame for years. In 2015, the WHO issued best practices for naming new human infectious diseases that warned against “unintended negative impacts by stigmatizing certain communities or economic sectors.” Dr. Keiji Fukuda, Assistant Director-General for Health Security said:

“This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected. We’ve seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals. This can have serious consequences for peoples’ lives and livelihoods.”

Dr. Chew and the over 2 million Asian Americans working in healthcare, transportation, service industries, and other essential workers are feeling that backlash now.

Employers Must Cut Short Racial Discrimination Due to COVID-19

The Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, AFL-CIO, is turning to employers to cut these xenophobic reactions short. Teresa Ellis, a national executive board member for the organization, compared the racial discrimination Asian Americans are facing today to the accounts of discrimination and xenophobia targetting Muslim, Arab, and Middle Eastern Americans in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Lori Ecker, a member of the American Bar Association Section of Labor and Employment Law Council told the ABA Journal:

“I think what is going on now closely parallels that. . . . In our figuring out how we are going to emerge from this crisis, employers need to be sensitive to the issues that their Asian American employees are facing or could face and take some proactive steps to prevent that from happening like it did 19 years ago.”

To help cut short the COVID-19 racial discrimination against Asian Americans, the APALA has issued guidance, recommending that employers:

  • Let employees and customers know that people of Asian descent are not more likely to get or spread COVID-19
  • Be prepared to respond to clients and patients refusing service by Asian American employees in a way that does not cut their hours or discriminate against them in their work
  • Perform employee trainings that reaffirm the dignity of Asian American workers
  • Provide bystander intervention trainings that teach employees what to do when they witness racial discrimination
  • Take firm stances against outbreak-related jokes or harassment based on race or national origin
  • Post signs supporting Asian American workers in the workplace or business

Help for the Victims of COVID-19 Racial Discrimination

For those whose employers don’t take APALA’s advice, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and private employment lawyers can help. The EEOC has promised it is “rising to the challenges before us” to advance equal employment in the workplace and enforce anti-discrimination laws. At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our workplace discrimination attorneys are ready to hold them to that promise. If you have been the victim of COVID-19 based racial discrimination at work, we can help you negotiate with your employer to make changes in your workplace, or prepare and file an EEOC complaint on your behalf. Contact us to schedule a consultation over the phone and get our New York based employment attorneys working for you.

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