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New Jersey’s Division on Civil Rights Issues an Important FAQ About COVID-19 and Workplace Discrimination and Harassment

Crises often bring out the best in people. Many recent COVID-19 (a/k/a novel coronavirus)-related stories have highlighted countless acts of selflessness to help people working in the healthcare industry, families with food insecurity, seniors and others. Crises also bring out the worst in people, including fear, anger, hate and discrimination. Just as the September 11th attacks brought about a wave of discrimination against people of the Islamic faith and people of Middle Eastern or Arabic heritage, COVID-19 also represents a regrettable opening for discrimination against people with health issues and people of East Asian ancestry. If you have been harmed by COVID-19-related discrimination or harassment at your job, don’t suffer in silence. Reach out to an experienced New Jersey employment attorney for help.

To help minimize incidents of coronavirus-related discrimination, the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights recently published a guidance document entitled “Civil Rights and COVID-19: Frequently Asked Questions.” That document, as it related to employment discrimination, focused primarily on two areas of potential harassment and/or discrimination: disability and race/ethnicity (or national origin.)

When it comes to discrimination or harassment based on disability or perceived disability, improper action related to COVID-19 might look different than other disability discrimination actions in the past, but the underlying concepts are the same. Just as your employer generally cannot fire you simply because your supervisor saw you take a hypertension drug and believes (without any supporting factual evidence) that the stress of the job is “too much” for you, your employer similarly cannot terminate your employment simply because, as the FAQ cited, “you coughed at work and they perceived you to have a disability related to COVID-19.”

‘The Chinese Virus’ and other examples of national origin-based harassment

Issues of racial or ethnic harassment may emerge during this period of pandemic. If your name, speech or appearance makes others believe (correctly or incorrectly) that you are of East Asian ancestry, you may be a target. There are many ways that this harassment can manifest itself. The FAQ listed examples of harassers stating that “Asian people caused COVID-19” or calling COVID-19 “the Chinese virus.”

Keep in mind, the person who harasses you need not be your employer or your supervisor in order for you to have a potential case in New Jersey. The only things that matter are that you suffered harm and that: (1) you were an employee, (2) you were the target of discrimination or harassment, (3) your employer “knew or should have known about it,” and (4) your employer failed to take “reasonable action to stop the harassment.” With proof of those things, you can have a successful case.

Another thing to remember is that filing a lawsuit or administrative complaint regarding coronavirus-related discrimination or harassment at work is considered a “protected activity,” which means that your employer cannot legally retaliate against you for filing that complaint. If your employer does so, then that retaliation can be a separate and additional basis for suing and winning an award of damages. (In New Jersey, you can obtain an award of damages for retaliation even if your underlying discrimination or harassment claim fails.)

The current pandemic represents difficult times for everyone, but there is never a time to be anything less than vigilant about stamping out the social ills of workplace discrimination and harassment. If you have been harmed at work because of your actual or perceived disability or your actual or perceived race/national origin, contact the skilled New Jersey employment attorneys at Phillips & Associates. Our team of hardworking attorneys has spent many years striving to help harmed workers get the compensation they deserve. Contact us online or at (609) 436-9087 today to set up a free and confidential consultation.

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