Meeting of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
"Employment Discrimination in the Aftermath of September 11"
December 11, 2001
The terrorist attacks of September 11th struck at the heart of the American workplace.
Three months later, their effects continue to reverberate throughout the country. While employers and employees alike are experiencing changes and new challenges - from security demands to job losses and anxieties about the future -- the aftereffects of the attacks have fallen particularly hard on the communities whose representatives we have invited here today.
We have called this meeting to focus on the employment issues that the events of September 11th have triggered, and our responsibilities relating to them. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is the nation's chief law enforcement agency for civil rights in employment. We have received many reports of employment discrimination since September 11th against people who are, or are perceived to be, Arab, Muslim, Sikh, Middle Eastern, or South Asian. Our purpose today is to promote greater understanding of the equal employment laws and the protections they provide to individuals of any national origin, race, or religion who are vulnerable to discrimination at this time.
We are guided in our efforts by the leadership of President Bush and his vow, when taking office in January, to "build a single nation of justice and opportunity." Today, we advance that promise.
On behalf of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, I want to extend a warm welcome to our speakers. Our first panel includes those who have been at the forefront of the national response, working tirelessly to educate, to inform the public, and to protect individual rights and the rule of law. I would like to introduce:
On our second panel are two employers. They will present successful steps they have taken to promote greater understanding and support diversity in their workplaces, and "rapid response" measures they put in place after September 11th to head off potential discrimination.
Our third panel will be EEOC officials from headquarters and the Detroit District Office, which has enforcement jurisdiction over one of the nation's largest metropolitan populations of Muslims, Arab-Americans, and Middle Easterners.
We also have as special guests here today representatives of the Department of Labor and of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. We have worked closely with these sister agencies to mount a united front against backlash discrimination, coordinating receipts of complaints and outreach.
These days we often hear the refrain that because of September 11th, everything has changed. This has been all too true for the EEOC and the employees of our New York District Office. As most know, our office was located in 7 World Trade Center and was destroyed in the terrorist attacks. We are immeasurably thankful that our employees were safely evacuated. The task of rebuilding one of our largest offices has been daunting indeed, but still no match for the dedication of our New York employees. There is no better example of devotion to the mission of the EEOC and to the service of the people whose rights we protect.
It reminds us that the important things have not changed since September 11th. The EEOC remains focused on its enduring mission: to ensure that working men and women have the freedom to compete without the barriers of unlawful discrimination and the indignities of illegal harassment. Our job includes providing avenues of access to EEOC as well, making sure people who have been discriminated against know their rights and the availability of remedies. Because many victims are hesitant to come forward - because of cultural or language barriers, or immigration status -- I want to assure the members of the public that anyone who believes he or she has been subject to workplace discrimination may file a charge with the EEOC.
Let me make a final point. At a time when many are engaging in stereotyping, we caution employers not to take their cues from those who view people as members of groups rather than as individuals. Title VII requires that employers treat their employees and applicants as individuals. In Title VII Congress also addressed employers' security concerns by providing an exception for national security requirements imposed by federal law. In today's anxiety ridden environment, we urge employers to follow the law rather than turning reflexively to the stereotype of national origin or religion as a basis for employment decisions.
I would now like to recognize my colleagues and fellow Commissioners, Vice Chair Paul Igasaki and Commissioner Paul Miller, who will each make a brief opening statement.
I want to thank all of our panelists for sharing their experiences and expertise with us. You have given us much to consider. As our meeting comes to a close, I would like to conclude with some thoughts about the future. What results do we want to see come from this forum?
To the extent the fight against backlash discrimination has been a success story already, we need to learn from the experience. One group reported to us that there have been few or no reported incidents of backlash discrimination in workplaces where the employer had its EEO infrastructure in place, where the CEO sent out a strong policy against discrimination soon after September 11th, and where internal dispute resolution mechanisms were available. We urge employers to apply these lessons of success more broadly. And in the federal government, we are practicing what we preach, working with agency EEO directors and the Office of Personnel Management, whose director, Kay Coles James, has issued a strong statement on respect for others in the workplace.
At the other end of the spectrum are those with no policies and no preventive measures, allowing the employment environment to be infected by ethnic or religious prejudice. We need to ensure that victims come forward to report these unlawful acts. The response to backlash discrimination can teach us how to raise the EEOC's outreach and enforcement programs to higher levels of effectiveness.
Finally, I want to close by looking to a very different issue, another future challenge, but one that faces us on the international front. Events of recent weeks have opened the eyes of America as never before to the plight of women in Afghanistan. Before the Taliban regime took over, Afghan women were protected by law and made up large percentages of the doctors, government workers, and schoolteachers. The Taliban regime banned women from getting an education, from working, and from moving about their communities freely. As First Lady Laura Bush said in her radio address, "The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women."
I believe the EEOC has a vital leadership role to play with respect to employment rights in other countries. As the rebuilding process begins in Afghanistan, the EEOC is preparing to extend a helping hand. We are working now with the State Department to identify ways for the EEOC to share expertise and technical assistance as requested of us during the process of establishing employment rights for Afghan women.
America's equal employment laws have long been a model for the world. They have helped to unify us in the aftermath of the tragic events of September 11th, and as a consequence we are strengthened in our resolve to combat bigotry and discrimination in any form.
This page was last modified on December 11, 2001.
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