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Covid-19 creates civil rights crisis for America’s workers
29/04/2021
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Protest

The covid-19 pandemic is causing disproportionate harm to already vulnerable populations and has created a civil rights crisis in the workplace, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has heard.

In a public virtual hearing on 28 April in Washington DC, the EEOC heard evidence from job discrimination experts on the pandemic’s disparate impact on workers depending upon race, gender, disability, and age. The Commission heard how a “K-shaped recovery” post-covid would be 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,” said the Economic Policy Institute’s Heidi Shierholz, who also highlighted how the crisis has had a disproportionate impact on women and people of colour in front-line retail and service jobs.

Also testifying on the devastating impact of covid on workers of colour, Damon Hewitt of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law emphasised that economic and employment issues exacerbated by the health crisis will outlast the pandemic and that it is imperative the EEOC use its enforcement power to ensure that employment opportunities are available on an equitable basis.

“For over a year, workers of colour 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.”

Discussing the harmful effects of the pandemic on Asian Americans, John C Yang of Asian Americans Advancing Justice said: “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.

“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.”

Amrith Kaur of the Sikh Coalition said the pandemic had “contributed to greater religion-based employment discrimination” among the Sikh community, particularly in healthcare and other front-line occupations.

In her testimony, Fatima Goss Graves of the National Women’s Law Center observed that women make up nearly two in three front-line essential workers, yet still make less than men, and have also borne the brunt of pandemic-related layoffs and job losses, erasing decades of progress in the labour force participation rate.

“The covid-19 pandemic has threatened to exacerbate the wage gap and created opportunities for increased sexual harassment and related retaliation,” Graves said. “The Commission is well-placed to take much-needed action in this moment to support our nation’s workforce.”

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

Attention was also paid to the pandemic’s impact on migrant workers, with Mónica Ramirez of Justice for Migrant Women remarking that farmworker women “put their lives on the line for the benefit of all of us” despite many not qualifying 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,” she said.

Former US Commissioner on Disabilities Julie Hocker reminded the EEOC: “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 the pandemic had wiped out modest improvements in the unemployment rate for Americans with disabilities in recent years, adding that workers with disabilities are often the last to be hired and the first to be let go during economic downturns.

Also speaking on the covid-19’s impact on people with disabilities, Brian East of Disability Rights Texas noted that, even before the pandemic, the employment rate of people with disabilities was persistently less than half of their non-disabled peers and that their unemployment rate is more than twice as high. He also testified that job losses for workers with disabilities were steeper than those experienced by workers without disabilities during the pandemic.

“Vigorous enforcement of anti-discrimination statutes like the [Americans with Disabilities Act] and the Rehabilitation Act is necessary to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on people with disabilities,” East said. “Expanding opportunities for remote work can have a huge impact on increasing employment opportunities for workers with disabilities.”

Age discrimination was also highlighted. Noting that many older workers, especially women, may never fully recover from long-term unemployment, Laurie McCann of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Foundation 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.”

Johnny C Taylor Jr of the Society for Human Resource Management said the pandemic has presented “some of the most critical, intensive, and urgent workplace issues” HR professionals have ever experienced.

Taylor also noted that the pandemic has increased the burden on working caregivers. Nearly 20% of Americans with caregiving responsibilities believe their professional development has been stifled during the pandemic because of their care commitments.

With many tribes dependent on income from casinos that were shuttered during the pandemic, testimony was also heard about the harm inflicted by covid on Native Americans.

“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,” said Eric Henson of The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.

“Today’s testimony makes 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,” said EEOC chair Charlotte A Burrows yesterday. “All of us have a critical role to play in our economic recovery. We must come together to ensure that all employees can work free of discrimination and that everyone who wants to work has equal employment opportunities.”