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  • Writer's pictureRyan

Coronavirus: Workplace Discrimination Concerns

With the virus first discovered in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China in late 2019 rapidly spreading across the globe, a potential discriminated based on unreasonable xenophobic fears can be troubling within our workplace today.

We have seen various novel issues before, remember these letters? H1N1, SARS and MERS? But yet employers are asking these type of basic questions relating to COVID-19 today:

  • What can I do if my employee appears sick?

  • Can I ask my employee to stay home if they appear sick?

  • Can I take their temperature before they start work?

Forget about COVID-19 here, employers have always been allowed to send home their employee if that employee presents obvious signs of illness. So let’s remind our supervisors not to overreact to a sick employee and spread fear within the company. The right thing to do is to treat each situation a separate entity alone.

If an employee is sick, act professionally by asking them to leave and seek medical attention in a professional and confidential fashion. There is no reason to put the rest of the workforces on notice.

Taking Employees' Temperature Before Work

Employer should be mindful when seek for employees temperatures before entering the offices and start working. Some may view this as improper hard presumptions to overcome.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) places restrictions on questions that an employer can make into an employee’s medical status. The ADA prohibits employers from requiring medical examinations and making disability-related inquiries unless:

  1. The employer can show that the inquiry or exam is job-related and consistent with business necessity

  2. The employer has a reasonable belief that the employee poses a “direct threat” to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot otherwise be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) considers taking an employee’s temperature to be a “medical examination” under the ADA.

General tips for all employers:

  • Analyse each case on its own merits and decide based on the available information

  • Avoid violating both the federal and state laws regarding discrimination and retaliation in the workforceWorkplace Laws Employers Should Recognize with COVID-19OSHA

Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Act of 1970 stated that employers are required to provide each worker “employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognised hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”

Definition of Xenophobia

“Fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign.”

Looking at previous pandemic outbreaks such as H1N1 (or the “Swine Flu”) and Ebola, discrimination towards a certain group of people from its origin can easily been seen all across the news. History repeats itself.Tension of H1N1 influenza resulted in a pandemic back in 2009, with the first case of H1N1 reported at the pig farms located in Mexico. While there was no evidence that shows that people of Mexican or Latin American descent were the cause of the disease, people stigmatised and blamed the Mexicans, Latin Americans, and others of Latin American decent for the spread of virus.Similar to COVID-19, people of

Asian descent was scapegoated for the spread of the Ebola outbreaks. Needless to say, discrimination against the Chinese community can be seen across the news, such as declining in sales at the Chinatown districts and publicly attacking Chinese descent.

With that being said, employers have the responsibility to prevent any such discriminative actions from happening within the workplace. All policies should be stated clearly to staff members in lights of the pandemic situations while keeping employee information confidential.

How to avoid workplace discrimination regardless of national origin

Employers should ensure that they do not base a decision to bar or remove an employee from the workplace based on national origin or ethnicity. These decisions are looked at objectively compared to the rest of the workforce. Employer should look at all the facts presented at the time and come up with unbiased decisions to treat all employees the same.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently warned:

“DO NOT show prejudice to people of Asian descent, because of fear of this new virus. Do not assume that someone of Asian descent is more likely to have COVID-19.”

How to ensure employees are treating their colleagues fairly?

The best way to get in front of this issue is to proactively provide your employees with information and trainings around area of COVID-19 related concerns like minimising the virus exposure and hygiene related matters, while emphasising the fact that no nationality is more likely to spread the virus than another.

Employer should continue to remind their staff about polices that were made to protect employees against discrimination or harassment within workplace. Because it is absolutely vital to have polices that people are aware and willing to act upon on starting from top down, supervisory employees must be the early adopters towards this area.

Coronavirus at work: how should companies response to COVID-19

  • Provide your employees with information on COVID-19 and effort to keep up with various public agencies (CDC, WHO, local department of health) with the most up-to-date information

  • Review and update policies regarding to “working from home” arrangement (i.e. temporary remote work policy)

  • Design a plan of action on how you will respond if one of your employees is suspected or confirmed positive for COVID-19

  • Modify existing policies in regards to paid time off (PTO) or sick leave to address COVID-19 related concerns

Additional Points for Employers to Consider:

  • Remind and enforce anti-discrimination policies to enable employees to be themselves within the workplace

  • Openness for employees to report any discrimination without fear of retaliation.

  • Notify employees not to panic and that company will ensure their safety within the workplace. (Stress the importance of listening to scientists rather than non-proven info from other online sources)

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