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EEOC deals with thorny COVID-19 vaccine issues

At a hearing, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission assessed COVID-19's impact on people of color and women, as well as workplace vaccination issues.

Some 1,500 people watched a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission hearing via Zoom Wednesday on COVID-19's impact on workers, especially on people of color, older workers, people with disabilities and women. But as it looked back on the pandemic's human toll, the EEOC also outlined its next steps.

The commission is preparing to issue COVID-19-related guidance to help employers and HR professionals manage the post-pandemic workplace. Some of the key issues discussed at the hearing centered around vaccinations.

Does "an unvaccinated employee pose a direct threat to other employees or customers?" asked Keith Sonderling, commissioner of the EEOC, and "what are the best practices related to an employee who objects to a mandatory vaccination policy?"

Johnny Taylor Jr., president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), which represents about 300,000 HR workers, testified at the hearing and added to Sonderling's list of COVID-19 vaccine-related questions.

As people return to their physical workplaces, "several civil rights implications are emerging," Taylor said.

"These include policies around prioritizing vaccinated over unvaccinated workers" in their return to the workplace, Taylor said. And "whether to separate them [vaccinated and unvaccinated employees] in the workspace," he said.

Taylor also raised the issue of how employers can manage "health-related accommodation requests to work remotely." SHRM believes that clear guidance to HR professionals is needed, he said.

Another critical question before the EEOC are guidelines around incentives that employers can offer employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Taylor said employers need an "understanding of the guardrails" around vaccine incentives.

How the EEOC will address these issues is yet to be determined. Still, Charlotte Burrows, the commission's chairman, said the agency "must support employers" and HR personnel "in navigating the new landscape that the pandemic has created for American workplaces." At a press briefing following the hearing, she said the EEOC was finalizing new updates.

Disproportionately hit

The overarching goal of the hearing was to assess COVID-19's workforce impact.

"All of us have experienced challenges during this pandemic; there's no question about that," Burrows said, but "the health and economic effects disproportionately hit people of color, women, older workers, immigrant and migrant workers, individuals with disabilities and other vulnerable workers."

"That's usually a side note in conversations about the pandemic, but today we put it front and center," Burrows said.

The pandemic's impact on the labor market "has been dramatic," testified Heidi Shierholz, a senior economist and director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute and a former chief economist at the U.S. Dept. of Labor. At the start of the pandemic, the nation lost 22 million jobs; although jobs are returning, "we still have 8.4 million fewer jobs than we did before the recession," she said.

People who couldn't telework and were deemed not essential experienced the greatest job loss. "These are the workers who were most likely to lose their jobs, often low-wage service workers and disproportionately women and people of color," Shierholz said.

Employees who could telework "were the most advantaged in this recession and the least likely to face job loss," Shierholz said. But this group was "relatively small," accounting for just a third of the workforce. Black and Latino workers were less likely to be in this telework group, she noted.

"Many people who lost their jobs at the start of the pandemic have been unemployed ever since," Shierholz said. "The good news is the labor market is headed in the right direction. More than 900,000 jobs were added last month."

Asian American impacts

Unemployment among Asian Americans was especially high during the pandemic, jumping from 3.4% in February 2020 to nearly 26% in May of that year, said John Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice. Yang, who also spoke at the hearing, said that almost one in four Asian Americans work in hospitality and leisure, retail, and service industries where unemployment rates have been as high as 40%.

Asian Americans are doubly threatened with both their financial and physical security risk.
John YangAsian Americans Advancing Justice

Asian American-owned businesses are over-represented in some of the sectors that have suffered the worst economic effects of the pandemic, including accommodation, food service, retail and education services, Yang said.

With "the hateful acts of anti-Asian violence," Yang said, "Asian Americans are doubly threatened with both their financial and physical security risk."

With schools closing, many women have reduced their work schedules, and "many women have been forced out of the workforce," said Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women's Law Center.

As of January 2021, more than 2.3 million women have left the U.S. workforce, bringing the women's labor participation rate to its lowest rate since 1988, SHRM's Taylor said.

Overall, the "pandemic's consequences have disproportionately affected minorities, underrepresented minorities, older workers, people with disabilities, and especially women," Taylor said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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