Hostile Work Environment Claims If You Are Fired or Laid Off in New York During the Coronavirus

The coronavirus has had a massive impact on people’s lives, and their jobs, in a very short span of time. In order to slow the spread of the virus, and to give the healthcare system more time to adapt and prepare, local and state governments are urging people to practice “social distancing.” Governors and mayors have ordered businesses to cut their hours, or to close down substantial parts of their operations. As many forms of economic activity have slowed, companies have begun laying off employees. This is not, in itself, unlawful, but as New York employment discrimination attorneys are aware, it is not always the layoffs themselves that are legally problematic — it is the way in which employers carry out the layoffs.

Employment at Will

New York is an “at will” employment state, meaning that an employer may fire an employee for any reason, or no reason at all, as long as it does not violate contractual obligations, internal policies, or the law. An employer cannot fire someone because of their race, religion, sex, or another protected category, nor can they fire them in a way that creates a hostile work environment on the basis of a protected category.

Harassment and Hostile Work Environment

Antidiscrimination laws at all levels in New York City treat harassment on the basis of sex, race, national origin, and other factors as a form of unlawful discrimination.

National Origin

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned against “show[ing] prejudice to people of Asian descent, because of fear of this new virus.” This kind of behavior in the workplace, especially when it occurs in connection with layoffs, could give rise to a discrimination claim.

Racial Comments or Symbols

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently urged employers to take action against “mistreatment and harassment of Asian Americans and other people of Asian descent.” Prejudice and harassment impacting people who are or appear to be of Asian descent, such as the use of stereotypes or racial slurs in the workplace, could support a hostile work environment claim based on race.

Sexual Harassment or Advances

The chaos and uncertainty created by the current situation could lead to other unlawful acts in the workplace besides race and national origin discrimination. inappropriate sexual comments and unwanted touching, unfortunately, remain an issue even now.

Sexual Orientation

Fear can bring out the worst in people. Hostile comments in the workplace about sexual orientation seem to be a go-to response for some people in times of distress. It is still unlawful under the laws of New York City and New York State.


The economic problems wrought by the coronavirus could also lead to misogynistic comments and other sexist workplace behavior. This violates every level of antidiscrimination law in New York.


Experts believe that older individuals are at greater risk of severe illness and death from the coronavirus. Some employers could see this as a reason to terminate their older employees, or to run them off by other means. This would violate the law.


Harassing or discriminating against employees who are pregnant is against federal and state law. Even if an employer somehow thinks they are doing it to protect a pregnant worker from the coronavirus, it is still unlawful.

The knowledgeable and experienced employment discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates fight for the rights of employees in New York City in discrimination and harassment claims under federal, state, and local law. Please contact us online or at (212) 248-7431 today to schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your case.

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