Please note that the information contained in this post is for informational purposes and is not to be considered legal advice. This blog post does not create or imply an attorney-client relationship. If you would like to discuss your particular circumstances with us, please set up a consultation by contacting the Satter Ruhlen Law Firm at 812-272-1474 or through our website (https://www.satterlaw.com/contact-us/). We look forward to walking you through your workplace rights.
Workplace discrimination and harassment against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders is being fueled by xenophobic rhetoric about the COVID-19 virus. Workers in these protected classes are facing everything from coworkers’ racist “jokes” to physical violence.
No worker should be subjected to workplace discrimination or harassment on the basis of national origin or race at any time, and workplace hostility makes a coronavirus-affected workplace even more dangerous. Fortunately, there are some steps that New York workers can take when faced with discrimination and harassment.
In the State of New York, the Division of Human Rights [“SDHR”] recently released a useful handout on COVID-19 related workplace discrimination.  The handout describes a variety of examples of pandemic-related discrimination workers might face, including being sent home based on a perception that they are more susceptible to coronavirus because of their race, being discriminated against for wearing a face mask, and threats and harassment. (Violence and threats of violence may be considered hate crimes, and it is appropriate to call 911 to address violence or threats. It is also a good idea to call the New York State Hate Crimes Task Force at 1-888-392-3644.)
What can a worker do when faced with what appears to be race-based or national origin-based discrimination? While there is no substitute for speaking with an attorney qualified to practice employment law in your jurisdiction, these are some pointers that can help you when you get to that conversation.
- Document the incident meticulously. Write down what happened, who saw it happen, when it happened (date and time), who was hostile or discriminatory, who was the victim, where it happened, and the order in which things happened. Note: Discrimination/harassment that is not connected to your protected class is not illegal. Don’t clutter up your documentation with incidents involving “equal opportunity” nastiness that you can’t show is connected to your protected class – it’s not fair, but it won’t get you anywhere. This update from the SDHR includes a list of classes that are protected in the State of New York.
- Think about the effect of the incident. Has your safety been compromised? Has the incident made it impossible for you to do your job (for instance, has your equipment been damaged or have you been denied access to key resources?) Do you need to see a mental health provider to deal with the emotional effects of the incident? Has the incident affected your finances? Do you have a certificate or license that could be affected?
- If the incident is one of a series of nasty events, document who, what, where, when, and how each incident occurred.
- Once you have written down all the information, send it in an email to yourself using your PERSONAL EMAIL ACCOUNT. Email is a great tool for combating workplace discrimination, because an email message is automatically date-stamped and time-stamped. However, IT’S ALMOST NEVER A GOOD IDEA SEND AN EMAIL FROM YOUR WORK ADDRESS TO YOUR PERSONAL EMAIL. The employer can track that, and will use it against you.
- If the incident physically prevents you from being able to do your job, has caused you to seek mental health treatment, has affected your finances, or is one of a series of ongoing events, have a look at your employer’s discrimination and harassment policy. Figure out how and to whom to report the incident(s).
- Write a complete, succinct timeline of the
discrimination and harassment. Start with
the oldest incident. For each incident,
- Harasser Name
- Harassee Name
- Names of any witnesses
- Photos, memos, videos, recordings
- What happened, in chronological order
- Its effect on you
- Make a complaint pursuant to the employer’s discrimination
and harassment policies. Include your
timeline in the complaint. If the employer
uses a complaint form, attach the timeline to the form. Send the complaint in a
way that you can easily track. Don’t
assume that a hand-delivered document or something sent via inter-office mail
is going to be acknowledged or followed up on. Here are some trackable ways
to send a complaint:
- Send an email and request a “read” receipt
- Send a fax and get a fax confirmation receipt
- Send it via certified mail and track it through the post office
- Carefully document everything that happens after you make your complaint, in the same manner you used to document the original incident(s).
- Once you’ve made a complaint, buckle your seatbelt. The workplace is about to get very complicated for you. People may stop talking to you – they’ve been ordered to do so, because now you are considered a litigation risk. You may be put on paid leave pending the employer’s investigation, or you may be temporarily moved to a new assignment. The ostensible reason for the change is to protect you from the harasser. The real reason is because the employer is afraid someone will do something to you that will give you additional grounds for a lawsuit. If the change affects your pay, call an attorney.
- The employer will probably perform some kind of investigation. You probably won’t get a copy of the report. You may not even be informed of the results of the investigation.
- Once the employer’s investigation is complete, one of three things will likely happen: a) the harasser will be removed, either losing his job or put in a place where he doesn’t have contact with you; b) nothing will change, except that now your coworkers might be afraid to talk to you; or c) you’ll experience workplace retaliation (i.e., even more nasty conduct with you as the target.) Depending on how sophisticated the employer is, the retaliation may or may not be actionable. Just continue to document everything that happens to you.
- If you’ve hit a wall with the employer’s investigation and option (b) or (c) has occurred, that’s a good time to speak with an attorney and determine whether it makes sense to pursue the claim with the SDHR, the federal EEOC, or in another forum.
- CALL AN ATTORNEY. It doesn’t matter if you call Satter Ruhlen Law Firm or another firm. Just get in touch with someone with expertise in your jurisdiction who can tell you if any or all of the above pointers are a good idea. It is well worth the consultation fee to determine what your rights might be in the workplace.
Workplace discrimination and
harassment is intolerable under any circumstance. In a workplace affected by coronavirus, it is
extremely dangerous. Ultimately you have
to decide whether and how to fight it, but know that it is illegal and are laws
to protect you.