By Michael Rhoads, May 19, 2021

As Meghan shared this month, on April 28, 2021, the EEOC held a Hearing on the Civil Rights Implications of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Several experts weighed in on how the EEOC can assist workers and employers as we move forward toward reopening the physical workspace and addressing the civil rights crisis exacerbated by the pandemic.

The experts who gave testimony touched on an array of topics, such as helping caregivers return to the workforce, increasing empathy in the workplace, sexual harassment during the pandemic, predictions as to when employees will return to the physical workplace, and how to help teleworkers.

In her opening statement EEOC Chair Charlotte A. Burrows stated: “The purpose of today’s hearing is to examine the workplace civil rights implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. The past 12 months have been frankly, incredibly difficult for the American people. It’s been clear for some time that the pandemic is not only a public health and economic crisis, but truly a civil rights crisis. While every single one of us has experienced challenges during this pandemic, it’s important to recognize that the pandemic hasn’t impacted everyone in the same way. The COVID-19 crisis has exposed and intensified existing inequalities in our society. As employers seek to juggle telework, keep employees safe and stay up to date with the latest public health announcements, to name just a few of the challenges, we should help them as much as possible to understand specific equal employment opportunity issues arising due to COVID-19.”

Returning caregivers to the workplace

Childcare providers have been especially impacted by the pandemic causing them to leave the workforce or reduce the number of working hours.  Commissioner Andrea R. Lucas asked Ms. Fatima Goss Graves, President and CEO, National Women’s Law Center, to address these concerns by asking her directly: “What best practices do you recommend employers implement to handle applicants with extended gaps in employment either due to the pandemic or caregiving obligations in general?”

Goss Graves pointed to a current trend where some employers have outsourced their hiring process using AI technology, which would automatically eliminate applicants with employment gaps.  This may have a disparate impact on women who may have needed to take time off during the pandemic to care for a child, spouse or other family member.

“One in six childcare providers left during this pandemic and have not yet fully come back,” Goss Graves said. So if you have a rule that’s going to have a disparate impact on women outsourcing. It is not a solution.”

Harassment during the pandemic

Commissioner Keith E. Sonderling asked Goss Graves about the “new and unique types of harassment” are appearing as a result of the pandemic.

“What we have found is that in our intake at the TIMES’S UP Legal Defense Fund, is that about 7 out of 10 people report that when they experience harassment, they are also experiencing retaliation when they try to use their employer’s systems,” Goss Graves said. “But I do think it’s important to speak to what harassment is looking like in the context of COVID. People might be under the misimpression that just because people are working virtually that harassment doesn’t occur. It’s occurring, it just happens virtually.”

A more empathetic workplace

Johnny C. Taylor, president and CEO for the Society for Human Resource Management said American workforce us facing “an empathy deficit today … that significantly impairs our ability to provide every American worker equal opportunity to work and to do so free from harassment and discrimination.”

He continued, “Think about it. We’ve had laws on the books forever about sexual harassment and other workplace forms of discrimination. But at the of the day, it is empathy that keeps us all doing the right thing.  Building our empathy muscles will be critical to economic and business recovery because empathetic workplace cultures retain the best and perform the best.”

[Editor’s note: If you are looking to promote diversity and inclusion in your unit, join our newest faculty member, Marcus Hill, with Deb Hopkins and Bob Woods on June 16-17 for The Supervisor’s Role in Diversity, Inclusion and EEO Compliance.]

Taylor predicted there will be two waves of workers returning to the workplace.  The first will be after the July 4 holiday and the second will be after Labor Day.

He predicted the second wave, after Labor Day, will be larger, “because presumably children will be going back to school and there’ll be less childcare concerns for our employees who are having to take care of their children who can’t find the appropriate childcare and or schooling.”

Supporting teleworkers

 While the pandemic has necessitated working from home for those with job flexibility, some employees have felt isolated and depressed without the daily interaction that occurs in the workplace.

“As extended remote work continues for some personnel, and we are doing that, we are seeing gains in the percentage of employees across industries, experiencing depression, hopelessness, feeling of failure and reduced concentration.” Taylor said. “All of that obviously directly impacts an employer’s product and/or services. EEOC’s partnership in establishing best practice guidance when safely returning employees to physical work sites, safety standards, and vaccination education are areas where the EEOC could assist stakeholders during their operational analysis.”

FELTG instructor Shana Palmieri will tackle this on July 21, 1:00-4:30 PM ET in Dealing With Employee Mental Health Challenges During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic.

In a press release, Chair Burrows concluded: “Today’s testimony makes clear that, while the pandemic continues to have serious impacts on public health and our economy, it has also created a civil rights crisis for many of America’s workers.  All of us have a critical role to play in our economic recovery. We must come together to ensure that all employees can work free of discrimination and that everyone who wants to work has equal employment opportunities.”

We here at FELTG will give you up to date information from the EEOC and provide training that will support your agency’s mission.  FELTG is currently offering several presentations related to diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA). These trainings meet the President’s mandate to provide DEIA training in the Federal workplace.

Stay safe, and remember, we’re all in this together. rhoads@feltg.com

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