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3 Ways Employers Can Help Asian Workers As Attacks Surge

By Amanda Ottaway · February 26, 2021, 7:58 PM EST

The novel coronavirus pandemic has exposed and amplified an ugly pattern of anti-Asian hatred in the U.S.  

The Asian American Bar Association of New York released a report Feb. 10 citing New York City Police Department statistics that show an eightfold increase in hate crimes reported by Asian New Yorkers between 2019 and 2020. Thousands of incidents have been reported across the country since the pandemic began, according to the online tracker Stop AAPI Hate.

Reports Friday that a man was stabbed in the back near the Daniel P. Moynihan federal courthouse in lower Manhattan added to a growing list of recent attacks on Asian people.

"Anti-Asian sentiment in this country, as a general matter, is historical," said Dentons shareholder and employment specialist Jennifer Sun Park. "What is new is the connection, and the blame, and the xenophobia surrounding COVID-19 and Asians."

Law360 spoke to legal experts who shared three tips on how employers can help their Asian American employees feel safe and protected at work during the ongoing wave of racism and violence. 

Acknowledge the Problem

Multiple experts agreed that recognizing the recent spike in anti-Asian hate crimes and bigotry is a crucial step.

"For the Asian American community in particular, because we oftentimes feel invisible, giving that voice is important," said John C. Yang, president and executive director of nonprofit group Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

Many of the incidents involve microaggressions or other behavior that might leave the victim feeling unsure whether they should report it, which creates its own kind of trauma, Yang said.

"So by saying, 'Yeah, I see you, I agree with you that that's a problem.' That makes that victim [think] OK, I'm not wrong to feel this way, or someone is not telling me, 'just get over it.'"

CDF Labor Law partner Daphne Bishop agreed.

"As with all other problems when it comes to employment, ignoring it just makes it worse," she said, encouraging employers to "take a stand, denounce acts of racism against members of the AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] community and affirm support for members of that community also."

Now would also be a good time to recirculate company policies on discrimination and racism, she added.

Yang encouraged employers to have direct supervisors initiate conversations with their Asian American employees to check in on their well-being and sense of safety, and to figure out how best to support them.

"Certainly it is great for the employees to speak out, and we certainly encourage employees to speak out. But the reality is, it is unfair — and because of the power dynamics — it is unfair to wait for the employees" to come to their boss with concerns, he said.

Bishop pointed out that anti-Asian bias that harms workers isn't just wrong, it's unlawful.

"The law already requires employees to protect those employees from discrimination and harassment from members of the public," she pointed out.

Have a Game Plan

William H. Ng, a shareholder at management-side Littler Mendelson PC, suggested that businesses consider installing security cameras and cultivating relationships with local law enforcement.

"Obviously, you know, hopefully it doesn't rise to the level of when you would have to call local law enforcement," he said.

Regardless, management should be aware of the rise in racist incidents and map out a game plan for exactly how it will handle a situation of anti-Asian harassment or violence, he said.

If a customer verbally harasses a worker, for example, that customer could be asked to leave, and then the company should know exactly to whom it will report the incident, Ng said.

"It's just being aware of these issues and understanding, 'Hey, if this happens, what will we be doing?'" he said.

Dentons' Park suggested companies form a task force — made up of both management and employees, as well as the building or company security team if there is one and an IT worker for communicating messages — to figure out the risks their employees face and how to mitigate them.

Ng also suggested a security management team, adding that some companies could look into beefing up physical security by adding security cameras or keeping track of who comes and goes in the workplace.

While employers don't technically have legal obligations to make sure their workers have a safe commute, attorneys said they can still try to help if public transportation or walking is a safety concern.

Bishop suggested changes to an employee's schedule so they can avoid public transportation at certain times, or encouraging workers to carpool or otherwise travel to work together if possible.

"Think outside the box," she encouraged.

Park drew a comparison to commuting safety during the pandemic; employers have already been thinking about this issue, she said.

"I think most good employers are going to want to be aware of any issues that affect an employee's commute," she said.

Use Training to Empower Bystanders

Asian Americans Advancing Justice's Yang suggested that employers show support for their Asian American employees by offering so-called bystander intervention training, which teaches techniques for observers of a racist incident to step in and offer help in a way that does not escalate the situation.

"A lot of people say that they want to help, but they say they don't because they're afraid that what they do might make the situation worse," he said. "And so what we want to do is give them some tools so that they feel empowered to act in those situations."

Those tools include techniques such as an observer dropping his keys in front of a victim during a verbal attack, then asking them if they dropped their keys, which "effectively distracts from what is happening," he said. "If the perpetrator feels that he or she is not getting the attention that they want, oftentimes they go away."

A bystander could also simply ask the victim if they would like assistance getting where they need to go, he said.

Yang also said anti-bias training should include specific examples of the stereotypes faced by various communities so that workers can identify their own hidden or implicit biases.

There is "no doubt" many Asian Americans have been told their English is good, Yang said — a comment he said can make the recipient feel like an outsider. Other stereotypes include that Asian Americans are "good at math, or they're good workers but not good leaders," he said, encouraging workplaces to be "transparent" about the existence of such stereotypes.

CDF Labor Law's Bishop brought up microaggressions and the need for employers to be attuned to every incident, no matter how minor they might perceive it to be.

"I think this is also an opportunity for employers to do some implicit bias training, because I think it's helpful in terms of all kinds of bias," she said.

Acknowledging the country's ongoing reckoning with anti-Black racism, Ng said he's been encouraging companies to use some form of live video or interactive training that gives employees an opportunity to share their views.

"The companies have already been doing it, and I think this is just another reason why companies should be doing additional training," he said.

--Editing by Haylee Pearl and Neil Cohen.

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