Mar 14, 2022 - Economy & Business

Civil rights agency warns on post-COVID caregiver discrimination

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Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The agency charged with enforcing civil rights laws in the workplace issued new guidelines on Monday, warning that discrimination against caregivers, including mothers, may be unlawful — and something to watch out for as more women return to work.

Why it matters: "We really want to make sure that the pandemic does not lead to a long-term widening of gender and racial pay gaps," Charlotte Burrows, chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, told Axios in an exclusive interview about the new guidance.

The big picture: Discrimination against mothers and other caregivers was already a problem heading into the pandemic, but it worsened as pressures on parents — or anyone taking care of someone vulnerable — intensified during COVID-19, with schools, daycares and other resources shuttered or intermittently unavailable.

  • "We are getting a lot of COVID-related [complaints] in general," Burrows said.
  • Any time there's a big societal disruption, the agency sees an uptick in complaints, she said. For example, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the EEOC saw a 250% increase in charges with respect to discrimination against Muslims and Arabs.

State of play: Civil rights laws do not designate "caregivers" as a protected class. Discrimination happens when stereotypes about gender or race bump up against employee responsibilities. The guidance offers some examples:

  • Not assigning demanding or high-profile projects because of stereotypes about a mother's willingness to work.
  • Disparaging women for working hard when they "should" be home with their kids.
  • Or, denying fathers the opportunity to work remotely while letting women do so, because of stereotypes about men not being primary caregivers.
  • The EEOC also warned against race discrimination against caregivers, saying that no employer should hold workers of color to different standards than anyone else — say, demanding more documentation to approve an absence.

"This pandemic has been a challenge, not just in terms of public health," Burrows said. "But really a civil rights challenge disproportionately hitting minorities, women, persons with disabilities and vulnerable groups."

  • Many employers want to get this right, she said, but might be going about it the wrong way.

Zoom out: Calls to a legal helpline at A Better Balance, a workplace advocacy group, skyrocketed in the pandemic and remain high, said Elizabeth Gedmark, the group's vice president.

  • Even for caregivers working remotely, bias is a challenge. She mentioned an example where a woman had a baby crying in the background on Zoom and was reprimanded; but a dog barking was fine.

By the numbers: This January there were 3.2% fewer mothers of kids under age 18 actively working — that's about 1 million — compared to January 2020, according to data compiled by Misty Heggeness, an economist at the Census Bureau, for Axios.

  • There are a lot of reasons these women aren't back to work, Burrows said. "Discrimination can't be one of them."
  • Many women didn't have the luxury of leaving the workforce, Heggeness pointed out, and we should worry about them, too. "Care responsibilities during the pandemic exponentially increased. Moms are stressed out."

What to watch: Complaints to the EEOC lag the actual discrimination, and the agency will be tracking charges coming in on these issues.

Go deeper: Read the EEOC's guidance.

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