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Discriminatory Return to In Office Work Mandates Could Push Women and People of Color out of the Workforce

On March 5, when Deb Mihal learned that the governor of South Carolina had just ordered non-essential state employees like herself to return to the office in person and full time with just a few weeks’ notice, she knew it was going to be a problem. Ms. Mihal had been doing her job as director of disability services for a public college remotely since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, in addition to supervising her son’s remote schooling at the same time. Now, she had less than a month to find child care.

It was too late to switch her son from remote instruction to in-person learning, and she couldn’t find anyone appropriate to supervise her son. And the fear of increasing her family’s exposure to COVID-19, before anyone was yet eligible to be vaccinated, loomed. This put her in a position of having to choose between her paycheck and her family’s health.

Ms. Mihal was hardly alone: We’ve heard from numerous other state employees — disproportionately caregivers, women, and people with disabilities — confronting similar hardships after the governor announced that tens of thousands of non-essential staff who had been working remotely for over a year must suddenly report to the office. Many were denied accommodations. That’s why yesterday we filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission asking the agency to investigate the discriminatory effects of South Carolina’s “return mandate.”

To be clear, the problem is not transitioning back to in-person work — that is inevitably happening in one form or another across the country, and for most, will bring a welcome return to normalcy. The problem arises when return mandates are issued with inadequate notice to workers, and in a manner divorced from the ongoing hardships of the pandemic — for example, before schools are open in-person full time, and child care facilities are back in operation at normal capacity. And if the South Carolina mandate is any indication of what is to come, it raises the likelihood that these mandates will play out in a way that is not just potentially harmful to workers and their families, but also discriminatory.

Many of these burdens result directly from government policies like school closures and guidelines on social distancing issued in response to the pandemic. While those policies have generally been necessary to protect public health, the government is putting state workers in an impossible position, requiring them to return to normal working conditions before ensuring that the critical supports they need to make that possible have returned to “normal” levels. And without these supports, “return to office” mandates could lead to the next wave of pandemic push-out of women and people of color from the workforce.

The toll of job losses during the pandemic has already fallen disproportionately on women and people of color. Despite the advances in most fields, women remain disproportionately responsible for caregiving for children and adult dependents in the home. Studies have long shown that women are more likely to adjust their schedules and reduce hours when the needs of children and other family members collide with work. Indeed, mothers with young children have reduced their work hours during the pandemic four to five times more than fathers, growing the gender gap in work hours by 20-50 percent. And women have left the labor force during the pandemic at a far greater rate than men, with Black and Latina women showing the highest rates of job losses.

Return mandates issued prior to widespread vaccination are also likely to exacerbate existing racial disparities in the health impacts of COVID-19. For example, in South Carolina, Black people constitute 27 percent of the population, yet they have accounted for 38 percent of COVID hospitalizations and 32 percent of COVID deaths. At the same time, Black people represent only 19 percent of those vaccinated, compared to 64 percent who are white. This will likely compound the disparities already faced by communities of color, and in particular Black communities and women of color, who were disproportionately represented in jobs deemed essential — and thus who were already required to return to work in person — over the course of the pandemic.

And no matter how long employees are given to return, or how much progress has been made in vaccination efforts, the ongoing — and still deadly — COVID-19 pandemic still requires accommodations to be made for workers with medical conditions or disabilities that make them or their loved ones especially vulnerable to infection, or those dealing with specific conditions, such as pregnancy and lactation, where the data on the safety of vaccines is still limited.

This week’s discrimination charge comes on top of a lawsuit we filed against Governor McMaster last month. Other states and cities had best take note that if they rush into forcing remote employees to return to the office without confronting the ongoing realities of the pandemic, they could cause new setbacks to workplace equality that will take decades to overcome. That’s not only unwise, it’s also illegal.

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