At a hearing on April 28, 2021, the EEOC heard from a dozen invited experts on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on civil rights in the workplace. EEOC Chair Charlotte A. Burrows said that the testimony of the panelist made clear that while the pandemic continues to have serious impacts on public health and our economy, it has also created a civil rights crisis for many of America’s workers.
Women and people of color disproportionately impacted. The Economic Policy Institute’s Heidi Shierholz presented a big-picture view of how job losses due to COVID-19 have had a disproportionate impact on women and people of color in front-line retail and service jobs. She also highlighted data demonstrating that the pandemic had disparate health impacts related to a person’s race, gender, disability, and age, and discussed how the "K-shaped recovery" (parts of the economy resume growth while others lag indefinitely) is worse for more vulnerable populations. "Recessions always hit low- and middle-wage workers the hardest, but the unequal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been unprecedented," Shierholz added.
Hate and violence against Asians. John C. Yang of Asian Americans Advancing Justice discussed the harmful effects of the pandemic on Asian Americans. "Compounding the devastating health and financial impacts on the Asian American community is the onslaught of anti-Asian hate, directing racist harassment and violence toward Asian Americans who are wrongly blamed for the COVID-19 pandemic," said Yang. "With the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and anti-Asian hate and violence sweeping through Asian American communities nationwide, Asian American workers face significant challenges, including threats to both their lives and their livelihoods."
Decline in women’s workforce participation. Fatima Goss Graves of National Women’s Law Center pointed out that women make up nearly two of three front-line essential workers, putting their lives on the line and struggling to make ends meet, yet making less money than men. She provided testimony that women have borne the brunt of pandemic-related layoffs and job losses, and the pandemic has led to a sharp decline in women’s participation in the workforce, erasing decades of progress in the labor force participation rate.
Critical role of HR professionals. "It is beyond question that the pandemic has presented some of the most critical, intensive, and urgent workplace issues HR professionals have ever experienced," said SHRM’s President and CEO, Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. He added that HR professionals have had and will continue to have a critical leadership role in their organizations, especially as employers continue to navigate the workplace challenges presented by the pandemic.
Working caregivers. Taylor also pointed out that the pandemic has increased the burden on working caregivers, noting that nearly 20% of working Americans with caregiving responsibilities believe their professional development has been stifled during the pandemic because of their caregiving responsibilities.
Migrant and farmworker women. Mónica Ramirez of Justice for Migrant Women highlighted the particularly severe effects of the pandemic on migrant and farmworker women. "Migrant women workers, including farmworker women … were called upon to continue to do their work—business as usual—to keep the world running. Some of the least visible workers were deemed front-line and essential during this crisis. Front-line is an accurate moniker, given that they literally put their lives on the line for the benefit of all of us," Ramirez said. Further, Ramirez pointed out, many immigrant workers do not qualify for COVID-19 relief due to immigration status. "Some of these workers were guest workers subject to the whim of their employers to make changes to keep them safe in their housing, transportation, and workplaces."
Workers of color hard hit. Damon Hewitt, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, testified about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on workers of color. Hewitt emphasized that the economic and employment issues exacerbated by the health crisis will outlast the pandemic. He stressed that it is imperative that the EEOC use its enforcement power to ensure that, as the economy slowly restarts, employment opportunities are available on an equitable basis. "For over a year, workers of color have faced a horrendous choice: their lives or their livelihood," Hewitt said. "Systemic economic and health inequities, entrenched over decades, have created the conditions that allowed the COVID-19 crisis to decimate Black and brown communities with near impunity."
Enhanced harm to Native Americans. Eric Henson of The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development pointed out that many Native Americans faced particular COVID-19-enhanced harm, such as the shutdown of casinos, upon which many tribes depend for a large part of their income. "We live in the richest society that has ever existed on this earth, but when the pandemic arrived in our tribal communities it was plain for all to see that our collective neglect of Indian communities led to direct and devastating consequences for individuals, for families, and for whole communities," Henson said.
People with disabilities face greater risks. Former U.S. Commissioner on Disabilities Julie Hocker reminded the Commission, "Many individuals with disabilities—particularly those with intellectual and developmental disabilities—are both more likely to work in essential workplaces and are also at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions co-occurring with their disabilities." Hocker noted that, in the 30 years since passage of the ADA, the labor force participation rate for adults with disabilities has not increased and that the pandemic wiped out modest improvements in the unemployment rate for Americans with disabilities in recent years. She further noted that workers with disabilities are often the last to be hired and the first to be let go during economic downturns.
Brian East of Disability Rights Texas also spoke on the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on people with disabilities. He noted that even before the pandemic, the employment rate of people with disabilities was persistently less than half of their non-disabled peers; their unemployment rate is more than twice as high. Additionally, he testified that at the onset of the pandemic, the job losses for workers with disabilities were steeper than those experienced by workers without disabilities, and disability discrimination is part of the reason for that disparity.
Employment and retirement security of older workers. AARP Foundation’s Laurie McCann said, "Like throwing jet fuel on a fire, the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified age discrimination as an obstacle to older workers’ efforts to find and keep jobs. The pandemic, which places older workers at greater risk of more serious illness than other age groups, and the recession that has accompanied it, have dealt devastating blows to the job prospects and future retirement security of older workers." She noted that many older workers, especially women, may never fully recover from long-term unemployment.
Religious discrimination and respirators. Amrith Kaur of the Sikh Coalition testified about how the pandemic has intensified employment challenges for Sikh workers, particularly in healthcare and other front-line occupations. "The Sikh community is not new to workplace discrimination, and the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to greater religion-based employment discrimination," said Kaur.
An emerging COVID-19 challenge is the interpretation of regulations issued by the CDC and OSHA on the wear of certain types of PPE, such as the N95 respirator, by bearded people, according to Kaur. Regulations require certain employees to be fitted for N95 respirators prior to being able to wear them in the workplace, but do not allow people to be fit-tested if they have any facial hair. Kaur said there are many reasons why individuals may be unable to pass such a "fit test," including having a narrow face shape, which is most common for women. But it is only individuals with facial hair who are not allowed to sit for the fit test at all.
Challenges that employers face. Michael J. Eastman from the Center for Workplace Compliance (CWC) testified that the pandemic has dramatically impacted the workplace. The challenges employers face today as they seek to maintain operations and prepare for a new phase of the pandemic, or even a post-pandemic environment, are diverse and complex. He detailed specific challenges facing employers due to COVID-19, including how to keep the in-person workforce safe, whether to mandate vaccinations, and potential online harassment in the virtual environment. On behalf of CWC’s members, Eastman made several recommendations to the EEOC regarding mandatory vaccines and stress and anxiety related reasonable accommodations.
Clearly, the pandemic has only worsened discrimination related issues in the workplace. It’s important for employers to be aware of how certain groups have been affected and create a comprehensive DEI strategy in order to be part of the overall solution.
Additional ASE Resources
Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Resources – Visit ASE's new Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion web page which provides ASE resources to help organizations build an effective DEI strategy.
Source: CCH – Pamela Wolf, J.D.