EEOC chair vows to combat discrimination of older and Asian workers
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Times Square, Manhattan, New York City

The chair of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has promised to use “all of the tools in the agency’s toolbox” to combat age discrimination and unfair treatment of Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) amid fears that employers may take advantage of the covid-19 pandemic.

Despite being perceived as having more experience, leadership skills, strong work ethics, and better professional networks than younger workers, many negative stereotypes about older workers stubbornly persist and have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Older adults are more likely to suffer serious symptoms if they contract covid-19. More than 95% of covid-19-related deaths occur in people older than 45 in the US. It is feared concern over worker health has created new potential avenues for age discrimination.

An American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) survey from December 2020 found 78% of workers aged between 40 and 65 reported witnessing or experiencing age discrim­ination on the job.

Giving testimony before the EEOC in April, AARP senior attorney Laurie McCann said the pandemic has exacerbated the already serious problem of workplace age dis­crimination in the US, describing the situation as “like throwing jet fuel on a fire”.

In a statement celebrating “Older Americans Month” this May, EEOC chair Charlotte A Burrows observed: “Some employers may view older individuals as more suscept­ible to serious illness and death and limit their work opportunities or attempt to reduce costs by only rehiring less experienced younger workers.”

The EEOC chair added that her agency aims to combat age discrimination through “robust education and outreach” and “aggressive enforcement” of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Over the last six years, the EEOC has garnered over $438m for age discrimination victims in pre-litigation resolutions alone, according to data from the agency.

In April 2020, Baltimore County agreed to pay $5.4m to over 2,000 county employees to resolve the EEOC’s lawsuit challenging an ageist pension plan, while last June the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California paid out $10m for systemically laying off employees over 40 and passing over older laid-off workers for rehire.

...although the EEOC tries to resolve charges when we can without litigation, we will not hesitate to stop and remedy unlawful discrimination by going to court when necessary

Following a spate of violence, harassment, and discrimination against the community during the pandemic, the EEOC chair has also vowed to “vigorously combat” troubling accounts of workplace harassment and discrimination targeting AANHPI workers.

AANHPI persons are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the US. Over the last decade, the AANHPI population grew 81% and is projected to make up the largest immigrant population in the country by 2055.

Recent data from nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate showed that between March 2020 and February 2021, there were 3,795 reported instances of hate against Asian workers, including examples of workplace discrimination. However, that figure nearly doubled in March 2021 alone, with the number of incidents reported surging to 6,603.

The March data shows that verbal harassment (65.2%) and shunning the deliberate avoidance of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (18.1%) continue to make up the two largest proportions of the total incidents reported.

Civil rights violations, including workplace discrimination, refusal of service, and being barred from transportation, account for 10.3% of the total incidents.

The majority of incidents take place in public streets and parks (37.8%) and in businesses (32.2%). Incidents of hate directed at women make up 64.8% of all reports.

Individuals of Chinese descent have reported the most hate incidents (43.7%), followed by Koreans (16.6%), Filipinx (8.8%), and Vietnamese (8.3%).

In March, the EEOC voted unanimously to issue a resolution condemning acts of violence and bias, and reaffirmed the agency’s “commitment to combat racism, xenophobia, harassment, and all other forms of discrimination” against AANHPIs persons.

Giving evidence to the commission in April, John C Yang of Asian Americans Advancing Justice said the “dual pandemics” of covid-19 and anti-Asian hate meant Asian American workers face “significant challenges, including threats to both their lives and their livelihoods”.

With May also marking AANHPI Heritage Month, Burrows said her agency will use “all of the tools in the agency’s toolbox”, including investigating charges filed with the EEOC; use its enforcement authority to stop and remedy unlawful discrimination; and work to educate employers and employees on their rights and responsibilities in the workplace.

Last week, the agency recovered $4.8m in a labour trafficking lawsuit against Maui Pineapple and labour contractor Global Horizons. In a default judgment, the district court found the defendants liable for national origin and race discrimination against 54 Thai workers who were subjected to physical violence, threats of deportation, and poor working and housing conditions. The EEOC said it will be distributing the money to the victims.

Speaking at an EEOC webinar last week, Burrows said: “Our success in cases like this is significant not just because of the substantial remedies for the victims, but because they send an important message that although the EEOC tries to resolve charges when we can without litigation, we will not hesitate to stop and remedy unlawful discrimination by going to court when necessary.”