As employers call workers back to the office, some AAPI women are at their wit’s end

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An attendee identified as Emily, left, holds a candle during a candlelight vigil for Michelle Go at Portsmouth Square in San Francisco, Calif., Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.

stephen | Getty Images

Sometime after Deloitte consultant Michelle Go was shoved to death under a moving R train in January, another New York resident vowed not to take the subway.

Instead of taking the No. 6 train to her office at Dime Bank in midtown Manhattan, the woman, an Asian American manager in her late 30s, walks to work. The fear she can’t quite shake, she says, is that she’ll be alone on a platform with someone unbalanced, and meet the same fate as 40-year-old Go.

“You don’t feel like the city cares or isn’t ready to do anything about it,” said the woman, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “You don’t feel safe. I don’t want to be the next title, so I’m walking.”

One of the many things lost since the coronavirus pandemic began more than two years ago is a sense of safety in public spaces. Asian Americans have felt this loss more acutely due to an increase in incidents of bias. According to advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate, 10,905 cases have been reported by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders since the start of the pandemic through the end of 2021.

Women make up 62% of reported incidents, according to Stop AAPI Hate, which was created in early 2020 to document the upsurge in Covid-related harassment and violence.

As employers – especially those in financial services, consulting and law – try once again to call workers back to the office this year, a sense of dread is common among AAPI women, according to Jo-Ann Yoo, director executive of the Asian American Federation.

“As the city started to open up, I had so many conversations: ‘I’m expected to be at work, and I’m scared. I’m scared to take the subway,'” said Yoo.

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Random brutality

The outbreak of the coronavirus in 2020 has caused a wave of seemingly random attacks on Asian Americans. Some were captured on grainy surveillance video, allowing the incidents to go viral and gain local media coverage.

Then, after eight people were murdered in an Atlanta-area shooting in March 2021 — most of them AAPI spa workers — the disturbing trend captured national attention. While the incidents helped galvanize a new generation of activists, more attacks would follow. Weeks after Go died in January, Christina Yuna Lee, a 35-year-old creative producer, was stabbed to death in her Chinatown apartment.

Then in March, seven AAPI women were assaulted while on a two-hour jaunt through Manhattan. GuiYing Ma, 61, who was hit in the head with a rock while sweeping her sidewalk in Queens, succumbed to her injuries and died. And a 67-year-old Yonkers woman was punched 125 times in the head in the hallway of her building.

The attacks drew national attention to AAPI’s concerns for the first time in decades: senseless and seemingly random killings and assaults on women like in these incidents are evidence of racial and gender bias that is hard to challenge .

“It’s a bittersweet time as our issues finally get attention,” said Cynthia Choi, a San Francisco-based activist who co-founded Stop AAPI Hate. “There’s a part of me that’s like, ‘Why do Asian women have to die for us to take these issues seriously?’ “

Chinese for Affirmative Action Co-Executive Director Cynthia Choi speaks during a press conference with Governor Gavin Newsom and other Asian American and Pacific Islander community leaders in the Bay Area at the amid rising racist attacks across the country, March 19, 2021, in San Francisco, California.

Dai Sugano | Medianews Group | Getty Images

The largest category of incidents tracked by Stop AAPI Hate is verbal harassment (67%), while the second largest is physical assault (16%). About half occur in public spaces, including the street, public transport and parks, according to the organization.

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“We have to recognize that we have a problem with street harassment and violence against women,” Choi said. “It’s something we have to deal with early on. What’s perhaps different are the unprecedented levels of hatred, based on our race or gender, or both, that have been exacerbated by Covid-19. .”

More than 70% of Asian Americans polled by the Pew Research Center last month said they feared being threatened or attacked because of their ethnicity, and most respondents said anti-AAPI violence was increasing .

“Even in broad daylight”

The experiences of half a dozen AAPI women living in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco varied widely. Some felt little worry on a daily basis, due to car journeys or completely distant offices. Others felt the pandemic only highlighted the concerns they had always had as minority women.

Most had adjusted their lives in some way to cope with the anxiety. My An Le, a New York-based recruiter, says she rarely leaves her apartment; when she does, she is armed with pepper spray.

“It really sucks, because I used to walk around with AirPods, listening to serial killer podcasts,” Le said. “Now if I go out, I have to have a mace in my pocket at all times, even in broad daylight.”

“I had never been afraid in Manhattan before the attacks,” she added.

Another woman, an Aetna employee who commutes from Park Slope, Brooklyn, to her company’s offices in midtown Manhattan, said she started taking Krav Maga self-defense classes after an AAPI attack last year. The training “helps you feel more confident,” she said.

Others were undeterred by the attacks. A 45-year-old investment banker said she takes extra precautions when taking the SoHo subway to her company’s headquarters in Times Square. She says she is “super vigilant” on the train and has her phone handy in case she needs to make an emergency call.

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While that hasn’t stopped her from commuting downtown three or four times a week, she says it reminds her almost daily of Michelle Go’s death.

“Michelle was in finance and consulting and she died in my subway station,” the chief executive said. “But I had the same sickening reaction to all [the incidents].”

The AAPI attacks are also part of a larger story of American violence. Last year, 12 cities set new murder records. In the past two weeks alone, a Goldman Sachs employee has been murdered in broad daylight on the subway, 10 people have been shot dead in a racially charged attack at a Buffalo supermarket, and 19 children and two teachers have been murdered in the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

“Hard to go back”

Declining public safety is a complicating factor in employers’ efforts to get more workers back into offices. Another is the continued spread of the latest coronavirus variants. And finally, as perks like hybrid working become the norm, employees with options won’t take full-time office jobs, according to the Dime executive.

“Once you’ve had a taste of flexibility, it’s hard for people to go back,” she said. “We were hiring for positions, and when you told people it had to be full-time in person, you lost a lot of candidates.”

As a result, only 8% of office workers in Manhattan are back full-time, according to the Partnership for New York City. Employers have reluctantly embraced the hybrid work model, resulting in 38% of employees being in the office on an average weekday.

But that means the city’s subways are still well below pre-pandemic ridership levels, contributing to safety concerns, she said.

“The city is not as safe as it used to be,” the Dime executive said. “If it’s night, I take an Uber, that’s it.”

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