Expert witnesses show how pandemic harms already vulnerable populations
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) explored the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on civil rights in the workplace at its first all-virtual Commission hearing Wednesday.
“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. “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.”
The Commission heard testimony from a wide range of experts on an array of related issues.
Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute 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. Shierholz also highlighted data demonstrating that the pandemic had disparate health impacts related to a person’s race, gender, disability and age. She also discussed how the “K-shaped recovery” 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.
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.”
Fatima Goss Graves of the National Women’s Law Center pointed out that women make up nearly two in three front-line essential workers, putting their lives on the line and struggling to make ends meet, yet make less 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.
“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.”
“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 Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).
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. 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.
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.”
Damon Hewitt of the 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 and 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.”
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.
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 nondisabled peers and that 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.
“Vigorous enforcement of anti-discrimination statutes like the ADA 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.”
Michael J. Eastman of the Center for Workplace Compliance testified that the pandemic has dramatically impacted the workplace and that 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, as 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.
“The EEOC has a role to play in helping employers solve these problems, in particular by helping employers understand how the nation’s civil rights laws apply during these unusual times,” Eastman said.
Laurie McCann of the 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.” She noted that many older workers, especially women, may never fully recover from long-term unemployment.
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.
The EEOC advances opportunity in the workplace by enforcing federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. More information is available at www.eeoc.gov. Stay connected with the latest EEOC news by subscribing to our email updates.