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As companies push for a return to the office, Asian Americans fear for their safety

TODAY spoke with Asian Americans across New York City as well as workplace experts to discuss what companies can do to address employees' concerns.
Michelle Go, left, was pushed to her death in front of a New York City subway car in January. Christina Yuna Lee, right, was slain after a man followed her back to her apartment and stabbed her to death. Noel Quintana, center, was slashed across his face on the subway in February 2021.Michelle Go, left, was pushed to her death in front of a New York City subway car in January. Christina Yuna Lee, right, was slain after a man followed her back to her apartment and stabbed her to death. Noel Quintana, center, was slashed across his face on the subway in February 2021.
Michelle Go, left, was pushed to her death in front of a New York City subway car in January. Christina Yuna Lee, right, was slain after a man followed her back to her apartment and stabbed her to death. Noel Quintana, center, was slashed across his face on the subway in February 2021.Michelle Go, left, was pushed to her death in front of a New York City subway car in January. Christina Yuna Lee, right, was slain after a man followed her back to her apartment and stabbed her to death. Noel Quintana, center, was slashed across his face on the subway in February 2021.TODAY Illustration / NBC News

Last October, a 30-something Asian American woman was commuting from work on the New York City subway when she suddenly felt liquid pouring over her head and sleeve, something thrown through the train’s doors by a group of kids on the platform in downtown Brooklyn. Moments earlier, she had heard the group say something along the lines of “Asian” or “Chinese.” She immediately feared it was acid. 

To this day, she has no idea what the substance was.

“I’ve been at this job for a few years, and I’ve avoided most incidents, but one month of returning to the office, I have something thrown at me from the train platform,” the woman, who requested anonymity for fear of losing her job as a New York City municipal employee, told TODAY by phone.

This woman’s experience highlights the fears of many Asians and Asian Americans in cities such as New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Philadelphia as the community faces rising rates of bias, harassment and violence. According to data from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, anti-Asian hate crimes have increased 339% nationwide in 2021 compared to 2020. 

And as corporate America pushes a return to normalcy — despite another omicron subvariant gaining momentum in the U.S. — some companies are now mandating a return to the workplace. But for many members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, concerns about returning to the office extend beyond a mere preference for the remote environment. Instead, it stems from a deep-seated fear for their safety every single time they step outside.

TODAY spoke with Asian Americans across New York City who shared their concerns and detailed the precautionary changes they’ve made in their everyday routines. All said they stand far away from the edge of the subway train platform; many carry pepper spray or a taser at all times. Several said they rarely leave their home at all. 

A hostile environment — every day

The coalition Stop AAPI Hate received more than 10,000 reports of hate incidents between March 19, 2020, and Dec. 31, 2021.  

Manjusha Kulkarni, a co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate and the executive director of AAPI Equity Alliance, said the organization began in February 2020 after news that a middle school student of Asian descent in Los Angeles was assaulted by a classmate for his background amid the xenophobia that spread during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kulkarni said the data shows that most hate incidents, 85%, are forms of harassment that generally fall outside the realm of law enforcement — the kinds of incidents that members of the community face every day. 

And this xenophobia is on the rise today. A 2022 study released yesterday from the nonprofit Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change and the Asian American Foundation found that 21% of U.S. adults said that Asian Americans are at least partly responsible for COVID-19, compared to 11% in 2021.

Nicole, an Asian woman and Manhattan resident who requested to go by her first name only out of safety concerns, said she experienced her first instance of discrimination related to COVID-19 in March 2020, shortly after the pandemic took hold in the U.S., on the subway. As she was leaving the 34th Street/Herald Square station in Midtown Manhattan, a man next to her put his arm over his face as if breathing next to her would expose him to COVID-19, Nicole said. Since then, she’s been coughed at and regularly hears racist slurs uttered around her. 

Every single person in this community has known someone who’s been attacked, or been attacked themselves or harassed.”

Brian chin Chinatown Resident

Her fears for her safety amid ongoing harassment and racism only increased after violence touched her inner circle. In April 2021, her best friend’s brother — John Huynh, who was of Vietnamese and Chinese descent — was fatally stabbed in Seattle, just a month after eight people, six of whom were Asian women, were killed in an Atlanta spa. According to NBC King 5, local advocates asked that Huynh’s attacker be charged with a hate crime, but the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office charged him with second-degree murder.

New York City's community has endured countless tragedies. In January, Michelle Go was shoved in front of a New York subway car and died. Christina Yuna Lee was slain on Feb. 13 after a man followed her back to her apartment and stabbed her to death. And nonlethal attacks have become a regular occurrence, ranging in brutality from a 67-year-old Asian woman punched 125 times and a Korean woman stabbed — along with a pizza shop owner and his father who intervened — to seven Asian women punched or elbowed by the same suspect in separate incidents over the course of two hours.

So when 10 people were shot on the subway on April 12 in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn — an area with a population that is 35.6% Hispanic and 34.8% Asian, according to the NYU Furman Center — it’s no wonder that many Asian Americans were on high alert.

Umi Miyahara, a 35-year-old Japanese American woman who lives in Brooklyn, was at home when she got a text from her husband; he had taken their son to school that morning and told her to turn on the news. The shooting took place near a subway stop that the family uses regularly to shop for groceries at Japan Village, a bustling marketplace specializing in Japanese food and goods. 

“It’s a very kind of minority Asian, Latino community there,” she told TODAY by phone. “So that immediately triggers another worry, like, ‘Oh, my God. Was this targeted?’” 

In Chinatown, an ‘unwritten curfew’

Chinatown at night
New York's Chinatown neighborhood has an "unwritten curfew," according to Brian Chin.Artem Vorobiev / Getty Images

Brian Chin, 29, is a teaching fellow at Harvard University who is currently working remotely. He is also the superintendent for the building in Chinatown where Christina Yuna Lee lived.

Chin described an “unwritten curfew” in the neighborhood where members of the Asian community are inside before nightfall. His tenants who used to keep their local businesses open until 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. now close at 6 p.m. sharp, he said. 

“It’s not undue caution, either; these are very real and founded fears,” he told TODAY by phone. “Because every single person in this community has known someone who’s been attacked, or been attacked themselves or harassed.” 

Chin said that he has been attacked six times since he started working as a building super, and he keeps a taser on hand. The most severe attack occurred after he caught someone vandalizing one of his buildings. After he confronted the person, the individual called him a racial slur and sprayed pepper spray at his face.

Jane, an Asian woman who owns a business in Chinatown and requested to have her last name withheld for safety concerns, said one of the first things she did amid the increased violence was buy two dozen cans of pepper spray and pass it out to her employees. Her self-protection measures escalated in early 2021 after one man angrily cursed and followed her down the street. She remembers she was holding a drink at that moment and struggled to get her pepper spray out of her pocket. Now, it’s in her hand at all times in public.

“If I hear anybody walking up behind me or near me, I put my back up to the wall and look,” she said.

Her instinct in situations like this is to get the details and understand what is happening. So in August, she created a spreadsheet tracking all the hate incidents that she knows about that have occurred around her. She’s also canvassed local businesses like hers for their experiences facing harassment and assault, which more than 70 businesses said they have experienced. 

New York City chinatown Lunar New Year parade
At the annual Lunar New Year parade on Feb. 20, Chinatown residents in New York protested against plans to build a new jail in the neighborhood or open any new homeless shelter.Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images

Chin said he understands the need for people to resume working in person for its effect on the “general commerce of the city,” he said. “But I feel like you can’t expect that without providing the safety net of security that people have come to expect.”

Fears of going to work

Since September 2021, 80,000 public employees for the City of New York, according to The New York Times, have been working at their offices in person, including the city employee who spoke with TODAY. After these plans were announced, Spectrum News quoted a city spokesperson as saying, “City workers will have all the resources they need to complete this final step safely.”

When the city employee with whom TODAY spoke was told that she had to return to the office in September, the woman said she almost had a “breakdown,” fearing what could happen on her commute or lunch break. Every day, she said she wakes up feeling anxious. Walking down the street, she wears a mask and sunglasses in an attempt to hide her identity. Ever since the liquid incident in October, she — like Jane — holds pepper spray in her hand whenever she’s in public. 

It’s almost like I’m being gaslit.

A New York City Municipal Employee

At town halls about the city’s office policies, the employee was told that requests for work flexibility would not be granted and described the administration as “dismissive” of any concerns raised. The return-to-office plan announced in September did not include a hybrid option, according to The New York Times. 

The employee said supervisors have responded to her concerns with, “Don’t worry about it.” And colleagues have been unaware of the increased violence facing her community, leaving her feeling “invalidated.”

“It was almost like we’re living in two different worlds,” she said.

The press office for NYC City Hall did not respond to multiple requests for comment by phone and email from TODAY.

“I know these things happen to friends of mine, and those stories don’t make it to the media,” she said. “I’ve seen it happen in person, and then it’s almost like I’m being gaslit.” 

Jane, meanwhile, doesn’t “have the luxury of working remote.” Her business, which sells household appliances, reopened in the summer of 2020 after initially closing due to the pandemic. 

“(We) compensate for the fact that it’s not safe anymore by changing our habits,” she said. 

Jane’s bookkeeper, who lives in Brooklyn, no longer takes the subway and drives to work once a week. The store’s hours have changed so all employees can leave at 6 p.m. sharp. The company’s doors are locked at all times now, too.

“We probably lose business over it,” she said. “We constantly get people who try to open the door and they get confused about why it’s locked, and they just walk away.”

What are companies doing? 

According to research from Microsoft, 50% of leaders say their company already requires or is planning to require employees to return to in-person, full-time work in the next year. 

Goldman Sachs has asked employees to return to work in person five days a week. JPMorgan implemented a hybrid model.

If I hear anybody walking up behind me or near me, I put my back up to the wall and look.

Jane Business owner in Chinatown

Twitter — which recently agreed to be acquired by Elon Musk — has publicly announced its approach, with CEO Parag Agrawal stating that while offices opened on March 15, employees have the option to work from home “forever.” Google has taken a hybrid approach; CEO Sundar Pichai told The Wall Street Journal that the company aims to embrace “flexibility” and that “most” of its workforce will work in person three days out of the week. 

TODAY reached out to companies across industries with offices in New York City — including Google, Twitter, Meta, BNY Mellon, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Deloitte, IBM, American Express, Morgan Stanley, MetLife, Verizon and City Hall — to find out how they are addressing Asian American employees’ safety concerns amid rising violence. Only one company responded to TODAY for an on-the-record interview: PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Shannon Schuyler, chief purpose and inclusion officer, told TODAY that the accounting firm’s approach is to let employees choose their working plans. Some work 100% virtually and some are taking a hybrid approach, coming into the office a few times per week.

“We’ve now told our people that whatever works for them, we will make sure works for us,” Schuyler said.

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A PriceWaterhouseCoopers high-rise office building in BostonAdam Glamzman / Bloomberg

Now, PwC’s goal is to ensure that these varying workplace options do not affect equity or “parity of experience.” The firm is aiming to determine this by reviewing the representation of employees on calls and in performance reviews, Schuyler said. 

“One of the guarantees that we made to our people as we made these options is that whatever they picked, it would not slow down their promotion,” Schuyler said.

About 22% of PwC employees opted for a completely virtual work environment, with members of the Asian community opting for remote options at slightly higher rates than other populations. Schuyler said that PwC found that from talking directly to its Asian employees, many preferred a remote environment for safety and to be with family.

PwC has also seen a 40% increase in participation in its inclusion networks — employee connection groups — including a Pan Asian inclusion network, for people to promote an environment for “safe conversations,” both virtually and in person, Schuyler said.

For people who choose to commute to the office, PwC sends communications about any areas that are not safe. She also said the firm can accommodate alternative transportation such as Uber for late nights.  

A spokesperson for MetLife, an insurance and employee benefits company with headquarters in New York City, told TODAY in an emailed statement that since March 28, it has operated under three work models, in-office, hybrid and remote. MetLife also cited the work of its inclusion networks, which “promote diverse voices.”

“This includes our Pan Asian Professional Inclusion Network, which over the last year has provided a forum for AAPI employees to have open dialogues about their pandemic concerns and experiences, and return-to-office experiences. MetLife leadership regularly checks in with the networks to understand concerns and take appropriate actions,” the statement said.

For PwC’s Schuyler, the firm’s message is simple: If an employee doesn’t feel safe going into work, “don’t come in,” she said.

“We don’t want you to do anything that would have you feel in danger or have you feel that’s not safe. And we can work around what that is and what that looks like.” 

What can companies do? 

TODAY spoke with several work experts who all emphasized one key point: Listen to your employees to understand their needs and how to meet them.

Trier Bryant and Kim Scott, co-founders of the company Just Work, advise organizations on building inclusive work environments — places that understand and value people’s identities and intersections, Bryant said. 

“Our clients will come to us and say, ‘What do (employees) need?’ and the first thing we say is, “Have you asked?’” Bryant said. “‘Have you created the space to actually ask them what they need? Because they will tell you.’”

“Have you created the space to actually ask (employees) what they need? Because they will tell you."

Trier Bryant Co-founder and CEO of Just Work

Scott, author of “Just Work” and the New York Times bestselling book “Radical Candor,” said return-to-work policies can feel “coercive” when they don’t take into account that different people have different concerns, and that accommodations are made for that fact.

“I think making sure as we identify the problems with coming back to work that we’re allowing for a diverse set of experiences,” she said. 

According to reports from Stop AAPI Hate, 11.5% of the more than 10,000 incidents reported involved civil rights violations, including workplace discrimination. Preventing this harm in the workplace is crucial as businesses return to in-person work.

“It’s more important than ever as we come back into the workplace and as we continue to have remote meetings, which I think is inevitable, that we teach people how to flag bias and disrupt it,” Scott said. “That we create a code of conduct  … and that we create real consequences for bullying.”

Kana Enomoto, the director of brain health for the McKinsey Health Institute, co-authored a report about psychological safety when returning to the workplace. 

“Employers who recognize and prioritize psychological safety alongside physical safety in their post-pandemic operations can help employees’ mental health and their own efforts to cultivate inclusive workplaces,” the report states. 

When creating this psychologically safe workplace for Asian American and Pacific Islander employees, “zero tolerance” policies for hate incidents and issuing statements of support from leadership is key, Enomoto said. 

“We need to listen to our employees, who may be having concerns, to understand their experience and guide the intervention design,” Enomoto told TODAY. “It’s not just in the workplace, it’s to and from the workplace.” 

But following up and through is just as important, she said. “It’s not just a launch and leave, but it’s checking in with the employees and their managers and their colleagues, one-to-one and in groups, on a regular basis,” Enomoto said.   

‘Our perfect Asian worker over there seems fine’

Mandy Tang owns a career coaching company called Rose Gold Careers, where she works one-on-one with clients looking to make transitions in their careers, from seeking a promotion to changing industries. A big part of that job is helping people find and reclaim their own identity.

“What’s really striking about work and our relationship with work is how much of our own personal identity gets wrapped up in that,” Tang said. 

Tang has noticed a shift from people treating work as something they do to something reflective of who they are

“If you have a company who is very top-down hierarchical and amidst the AAPI violence, if they say nothing, if they do nothing, if they don’t acknowledge it, if they witness microaggressions and then just act like nothing happened — these sort of begin to build a case against the company,” Tang said. “People start to feel like … ‘If I stay here, then that reflects who I am. And that’s not who I am.’”

From her experience working with clients through these questions, she’s learned that what many employees want is both public and private action. At its best, this looks like starting safe conversations and not putting the burden of education on the employee, Tang said. 

Tang also emphasized the dangers of the model minority stereotype. At a previous job, Tang said she heard secondhand a boss refer to her as a “workhorse,” signaling to Tang that they saw her as someone who “doesn’t cause trouble” and “keeps her head down,” she said.

She fears that this stereotype will prevent people from accepting the reality of constant vigilance and fear that the members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community live in every day. 

“People are like, ‘She seems fine, our perfect Asian worker over there seems fine,’” Tang said. “Just because your team members are not expressing it does not mean that they’re not experiencing it.”