As employers call workers back to the office, some AAPI women worry

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 Lam | Getty Images

Sometime after Deloitte consultant Michelle Go was shoved to her death underneath a moving R train in January, another New York City resident swore off taking the subway.

Instead of taking the No. 6 train to her desk 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 said, is that she will be alone on a platform with an unhinged person, and she will suffer the same fate as 40-year-old Go.

“You don’t feel like the city cares or is willing 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 headline, so I walk.”

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 that loss more acutely because of a surge in bias incidents. There have been 10,905 instances reported by Asian American and Pacific Islanders from the start of the pandemic through the end of 2021, according to advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate.

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

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

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

Random brutality

The onset of the coronavirus in 2020 brought a surge of seemingly random attacks against Asian Americans. Some were captured on grainy surveillance videos, enabling the incidents to go viral and gain local news coverage.

Then, after eight people were murdered in an Atlanta area shooting spree in March 2021 — most of them female AAPI spa employees — the worrisome trend gained national attention. While the incidents helped galvanize a new generation of activists, more attacks would follow. Weeks after Go’s death 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 during a two-hour spree in Manhattan. Sixty-one-year old GuiYing Ma, who had been 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 pummeled 125 times in the head in the vestibule of her apartment building.

The attacks brought national attention to AAPI concerns for the first time in decades: Senseless, seemingly random murders and assaults on women like in these incidents amount to evidence of racial and gender bias that is hard to dispute.

“This is a bittersweet time, because our issues are finally getting some attention,” said Cynthia Choi, a San Francisco-based activist who co-founded Stop AAPI Hate. “There is 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 Gov. Gavin Newsom and other Bay Area Asian American and Pacific Islander community leaders amid the rise in racist attacks across the country, on March 19, 2021, in San Francisco, Calif.

Dai Sugano | Medianews Group | Getty Images

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

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

More than 70% of Asian Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center last month said they worry that they may be threatened or attacked because of their ethnicity, and most of those surveyed said that anti-AAPI violence was increasing.

`Even in broad daylight’

The experiences of a half-dozen AAPI women living in New York, Chicago and San Francisco varied widely. Some felt little concern on a daily basis, owing to car-based commutes or offices that went fully remote. Others felt that the pandemic only highlighted concerns that they always had as minority women.

Most had adjusted their lives in one way or another to deal with the anxiety. My An Le, a New York-based recruiter, says she rarely leaves her apartment; when she does, she’s armed with pepper spray.

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

“I never felt scared in Manhattan before the attacks,” she added.

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

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

While that hasn’t stopped her from commuting uptown three or four times a week, she says that makes for a near-daily reminder of Michelle Go’s death.

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

The AAPI attacks are also part of a larger story of American violence. Last year, 12 cities set new records for murders. In the past two weeks alone, a Goldman Sachs employee was murdered in broad daylight on the subway, 10 people were shot to death in a racially-motivated attack in a Buffalo supermarket, and 19 children and two teachers were murdered in the mass shooting at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school.

‘Hard to go back’

The decline in public safety is one factor complicating employers’ push to get more workers back in offices. The continued spread of the latest coronavirus variants is another. And finally, as perks like hybrid work become standard, employees with options won’t accept full-time office positions, according to the Dime executive.  

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

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

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

“The city’s not as safe as it used to be,” the Dime executive said. “If it’s nighttime, I’m taking an Uber, that’s all there is to it.”