Response to COVID-Related Harassment
As the novel COVID-19 virus continues to spread tension across the nation, laws continue to be put in place to deal with the consequences. One such unfortunate symptom the virus has brought with it, is a staggering number of reports of discrimination and xenophobia that several lawyers say they haven’t seen since the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Such intense circumstances call for strong measures, as the government is forced to take action. So, what exactly are state and local governments in the tri-state area doing to thwart the social and cultural symptoms of this virus? Let’s take a look at the New Jersey and New York City response to COVID-related harassment.
New York City’s Commission on Human Rights has created a COVID-19 response team due to the spike in reported harassment and discrimination stemming from the pandemic. The team has investigated countless matters, all of which included discrimination allegations of some sort, in “housing, public accommodations and employment on the basis of race, national origin, disability and lawful source of income.” New York City is home to one of the strongest anti-discrimination laws in the nation, the New York City Human Rights Law, which prohibits harassment and discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations. The Commission has the authority to award injunctive relief as well as compensatory damages to victims, including emotional distress damages and other benefits, and can deter future violations by ordering civil penalties of up to $250,000 for willful and malicious violations of the law. The Commission can also order trainings on the NYC Human Rights Law, changes to policies, and other forms of relief, such as community service and mediated apologies. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, they have been working with community organizations to track and monitor reports of discrimination. Their Community Relations Bureau (CRB) has also held bystander intervention trainings with the Center for Anti-Violence Education that provide techniques to safely de-escalate a bias incident in real time.
Following suit with NYC, in March of 2020, the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights (DCR) released a Guidance addressing frequently asked questions regarding COVID-19, and, more specifically, the protections and obligations under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). The NJLAD prohibits discrimination and harassment on the basis of actual or perceived race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, disability, and other protected characteristics in employment, housing, and places of public accommodation. The NJLAD also requires an employer, housing provider, or place of public accommodation to take action to stop such harassment, if it knows or should have known about it. The DCR stressed that these protections still apply if the issue stems from COVID-19-related concerns and offers the following examples to illustrate:
- It is unlawful for your employer to fire you because you coughed at work and they perceive you have COVID-19, which is characterized as a disability under the law.
- If an employee of east-Asian heritage is harassed by a coworker claiming that Asian people caused COVID-19 or calling the virus “the Chinese virus,” an employer who knows or should have known about the harassment must take action to stop the conduct.
- The NJLAD prohibit retaliation against a person for complaining about discrimination or bias-based harassment will be extended to conditions related to COVID-19. This means an employer also cannot fire an employee for reporting COVID-19-related harassment to human resources.
Although COVID-19 may be novel, there are laws already in place that establish protections, obligations, and benefits related to COVID-19. The DCR makes it clear that COVID-19-related issues are afforded the same protections under the NJLAD and the NJFLA, as any other claim of discrimination or retaliation, and will be addressed in the same manner. If you or someone you know might be facing harassment or bias claims, in the workplace or otherwise, you should contact The Law Office of David H. Kaplan. David Kaplan is an experienced litigator with a wealth of knowledge and expertise with the wisdom gained therein, and can help you fight back legally within the area of employment discrimination, harassment, and anything of the sort. For more information, visit dkaplanlaw.com/