National Origin Discrimination and the Coronavirus in New York

Workplace discrimination has been a problem for about as long as workplaces have existed. New York City employment discrimination attorneys have some of the most powerful tools ever devised to fight back against such practices, but it remains a serious problem. Laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibit discrimination on the basis of several factors. National origin discrimination has taken the national stage in recent weeks because of the global coronavirus pandemic. Far too many people have channeled their fear of the virus, which might have originated in China, into acts of discrimination and harassment against people whom they perceive to be of Asian descent. In the workplace, this violates Title VII and other statutes.

Title VII, the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL), and the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) specifically identify national origin as a protected category. Federal regulations interpreting Title VII define “national origin” to include both “an individual’s, or his or her ancestor’s, place of origin” and “the physical, cultural or linguistic characteristics of a national origin group.” 29 C.F.R. § 1606.1. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) considers harassment on the basis of national origin to constitute unlawful employment discrimination when “ethnic slurs and other verbal or physical conduct relating to an individual’s national origin” create a hostile work environment or otherwise impede a person’s ability to do their job. Id. at § 1606.8(b).

Public health officials first noticed the virus, which is officially known as SARS-CoV-2 and commonly known simply as the coronavirus, late last year when a cluster of cases appeared in Wuhan, China. The disease caused by the virus is known simply as “coronavirus disease 2019,” or COVID-19. In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued best practices for naming new infectious diseases, in which it recommended that the media, governments, and scientists refrain from naming new diseases after geographic locations “to minimize unnecessary negative effects on nations, economies and people.”

While media in the U.S. mentioned China in early references to the coronavirus, they modified their coverage in early 2020 to align with the WHO’s recommendations. Months after the coronavirus had a name that was known to the general public, certain media and political figures in the U.S. attempted to rebrand it as the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus.” While the reasons behind this effort could be subject to debate, the impact is clear: many people are targeting Asians and Asian-Americans for what they think is their association with the coronavirus.

Acts of discrimination and harassment in the workplace because of an individual’s Chinese origin, or perceived Chinese origin, are unambiguous violations of Title VII, the NYSHRL, and the NYCHRL. A recent statement from the EEOC reminds employers about the need to prevent and correct national origin discrimination. In the midst of a global pandemic, such conduct can even hinder efforts by public health officials. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has cautioned the public not to “show prejudice to people of Asian descent, because of fear of this new virus.”

The experienced and skilled employment discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates advocate on behalf of New York City employees, former employees, and job seekers. We represent our clients in claims under city, state, and federal law for employment discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, and other factors. Please contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431, to schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how we can help you.

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