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Monkeypox and Employment Discrimination and Harassment in New Jersey

In April, we discussed incidences of workers enduring harassment and/or discrimination based on current events. That topic has again risen to the forefront in the wake of the 2022 monkeypox outbreak. Regardless of terrorism at home, war abroad, or a disease outbreak, there’s never a valid reason to discriminate against somebody at work because of their national origin, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. If that has happened to you, you should get in touch with a knowledgeable New Jersey employment discrimination lawyer to discuss what steps you can take.

Back in the early 2000s, many people of Middle Eastern ethnicity and/or of the Islamic faith experienced discrimination and harassment in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. More recently, Chinese and other East Asian people encountered mistreatment when the COVID-19 pandemic began to rage across the United States. People of Russian ancestry encountered issues after the events in Ukraine flared up into war.

Now, there’s another current event and another group being targeted. Monkeypox began to break out overseas in May. In June, the New England Journal of Medicine reported that, of those studied, 95% got monkeypox through sex, and 98% of those with the disease were gay or bisexual men, leading some people to consider monkeypox a “gay disease” and engage in harassment and discrimination against LGBT+ people. In an effort to combat this, the Attorney General’s Office announced the release of a FAQ document related to monkeypox.

One scenario the OAG directly targeted was a circumstance involving coworker harassment. The hypothetical situation involved a worker who was gay (or believed to be gay) and whose coworker “repeatedly harassed” him with claims that “gay people caused” monkeypox.

In that situation, an employer that fails to respond and work to eliminate the harassment potentially could be liable under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. The NJLAD protects gay people and bisexual people (as well as people of any sexual orientation) from discrimination and harassment. If the target’s employer knew about the harassment — or reasonably should have known about the harassment, then the coworker’s misconduct potentially created a hostile work environment for which the employer could be liable. Of course, if the harasser is the target’s supervisor or someone in a position of supervisory authority within the company, then the target could have an even stronger case of NJLAD violations.

While advocates are rightfully sounding the alarm about the potential for monkeypox-influenced harassment or discrimination against LGBT+ people, sexual orientation discrimination is not the only potential form of discrimination where monkeypox may play a role.

Monkeypox, Disability Discrimination, and Disability Accommodations

As the OAG pointed out, monkeypox qualifies as a disability for purposes of the NJLAD’s protection against disability discrimination. In New Jersey, a disability is any physical infirmity caused by an illness. Having any of the primary symptoms of monkeypox — flu-like symptoms, swollen lymph nodes, exhaustion, headache, sore throat cough, etc. — would mean your case qualifies as a disability.

If you develop those symptoms, your employer can send you home from work. However, as is true of a worker with any type of disability, the employer must provide you with a reasonable and appropriate accommodation of your disability. That could include offering you extra time off from work or providing you with the opportunity to work remotely. Whatever your accommodation ultimately looks like, the employer must engage in a good-faith process to accommodate your disability and can only avoid accommodating your disability if all appropriate accommodations would impose an undue hardship on the employer’s business.

As with all forms of harassment or discrimination, you may have a case even if you were not actually a member of a protected group like LGBT+ people or people with disabilities. If you were the target of discrimination or harassment because someone thought you had monkeypox or because someone thought you were a gay or bisexual man or thought you had a disability, then you may have a winning case, even if the harasser’s beliefs actually were incorrect.

Everyone is on edge about disease outbreaks, but that does not give people the right to “other” certain groups and harass them, whether it’s COVID-19 and Chinese people or monkeypox and gay people. Employers in this state should be vigilant to stamp out this kind of workplace misconduct. If it has happened to you and you’ve suffered harm as a result, then you may be entitled to compensation through legal action. The experienced New Jersey sexual orientation discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates are here to help, armed with many years of experience successfully representing people just like you. Contact us online or at (833) 529-3476 today to set up a free and confidential consultation.

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