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‘You’re in utter disbelief’: 3 Asian American health workers detail racial harassment at work

TODAY logo TODAY 5/6/2021 Maura Hohman
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During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the AAPI movement. We will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the entire month of May.

When nurse practitioner Helen Nguyen walked into work at a clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a few weeks ago, she had already been noticing an increase in awkward comments about her appearance and other "outright racist behaviors" toward her since the pandemic started, she told TODAY.

Sometimes, patients had questioned why her English was so good — the answer is that it's her first language. Another time, a co-worker told her, "What's so bad about being a model minority? Why is it bad for people to assume you're smart right off the bat because of your race?"

But that day in April, one patient seemed dead set on belittling the 28-year-old, who's been a nurse for seven years, even though she was the one providing him necessary medical care.

'Welcome to America'

"A patient greeted me with, 'Welcome to America,' and he said that really loudly, emphasizing that, and I responded right away that I'm American. I was born here," she recalled.

The patient brushed off her response, Nguyen said, before asserting that he'd waited a while to secure his appointment and "wasn't sure what kind of provider he was going to get."

"He asked me for my credentials, and he asked, 'Did you get your training here?' I was like, 'What do you mean here?' ... He was like, 'Here, this country.' I already told him that I was American, so for him to ask me again just felt like he dismissed that. Even if I was born here, I wasn't American."

Related: My family has lived here for over 100 years, yet many continue to view us as perpetual outsiders.

His comments left her upset, and she just tried to get through the appointment, which she said was especially difficult because it was only a few weeks after the Atlanta spa shootings that left eight people, including six Asian American women, dead. But as she walked out the exam room door, her patient stated once more, "Welcome to America." Nguyen said she gave him the same answer, that she was born in the U.S., and he responded, "Well, your parents weren't, right?"

"I didn't even know what to say. I was just in shock," she added. "It just felt like he was just trying to get the last word in."

An increased risk of violence

In the U.S., there are 1.4 million Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) health care workers, who comprise 8.5% of the country's essential health workers, according to 2020 data from New American Economy, a research organization specializing in immigration policies. Almost 1 million of them are immigrants.

Health care workers of all races have risked their lives during the pandemic, despite their increased risk of workplace violence compared to other professions, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

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Multiple AAPI individuals in front-line medical settings have told TODAY they've seen an increase in anti-Asian racism and violence at work over the past year. In general, anti-Asian hate crimes in the U.S. have increased 169% versus this time in 2020.


Video: Asian Americans underrepresented in executive jobs, corporate boards (NBC News)

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'Go back to where you came from'

Michelle Gutierrez-Vo, a Filipino nurse at a primary care setting in Fremont, California, told TODAY that she's had to intervene multiple times in recent months when patients have gotten aggressive with greeters doing check-ins and temperature screenings, who are mostly Asian at her workplace.

"More than one occasion, the patient actually got belligerent and said, 'I'm gonna come back and shoot you all,'" Gutierrez-Vo, 48, recalled. When these incidents happen, Gutierrez-Vo has had to step in, try to talk the patients down and call security. "It's terrifying," she added.

"You're in utter disbelief,"

Another instance that stands out happened at the beginning of the year.

"The patient started, from zero to five seconds, really screaming at this Filipina greeter," she recalled. "He started saying, 'Don't talk to me like that, I don't understand what you're saying. Speak English,' and she was speaking English. ... She was really being professional to the patient and saying, 'I'm here to help you.'"

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"He just said ... 'Where did you come from anyway? Go back to where you came from.' Then he said, 'You're stupid, you're dumb.'"

"It was so hurtful, and I had to literally stand up and go next to her to try to protect her," Gutierrez-Vo continued. "At that point, the patient ... walks away and is once again still spouting off, 'Such a stupid b----,' and this and that."

"You're in utter disbelief," she said, thinking of that moment. "Being a nurse for 23 years, it's not the first time I've seen belligerent behavior like that, but this was just a different form — racist as opposed to either mental illness or other things."

'They don't want Asian'

Gutierrez-Vo said she's outspoken about what she's seen because she's part of National Nurses United, the largest union of registered nurses in the country. But she worries that non-union health care workers experiencing violence can't advocate for a safer workplace as strongly. (According to a New York Times analysis of government data, roughly 17% of nurses and 12% of other health workers are unionized.)

Another group of health care workers that's been exposed to violence with little recourse because they're largely not unionized is AAPI caregivers in non-hospitals settings, like private homes and long-term care facilities, Valerie Francisco-Menchavez, professor at San Francisco State University, who's been researching Filipino caregivers in particular, told TODAY.

Related: Patricia Edwards, 62, worked in the intensive care unit for decades. Her grieving family has created a scholarship in her memory in the hopes of bringing more nurses like her into the field.

"Many of them show up at an agency that patches them through with employers in private homes or different facilities, and they told me experiences where they show up for work and are basically turned away and degraded for being Asian," she said of the 50-plus conversations she's had with caregivers this past year.

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"Many of them are mistaken as Chinese and have had slurs like 'Asian virus,' used against them," she explained. "At that point, they lose their job for that day or for the contract that they're trying to receive, and on top of that, it does take a mental and emotional toll on these caregivers."

Tess Brillante, a Filipino caregiver in Santa Clara County, California, told TODAY that since the pandemic began, she's seen caregiving agencies limit the number of Asian workers they hire. She also works as a community coordinator for the Pilipino Association of Workers and Immigrants, which advocates for the rights of this group in Santa Clara County, and many of her friends are undocumented caregivers, she said.

Related: Staff shortages and fear of exposure to COVID-19 can make it hard for families of medically fragile children to manage care at home.

"They only hire very few, not like before," Brillante, 52, added. "Clients, especially the white clients, if they would be assigned a caregiver in their private home, they don't want Asian."

Not 'a punching bag'

In mid-April, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act (H.R. 1195), and it's since been referred to the Senate's Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. If made law, it would require health care and social services employers to "implement a comprehensive workplace violence prevention plan."

But under current conditions, many AAPI health care workers are facing racism at work while still trying to provide the best care for their patients, regardless of whether they're the ones spewing it.

"Even if people hate us or hate me for any reason, that shouldn't change who I am as a person," Nguyen said. "I hold myself to a high standard, and I don't want that standard waiver depending on the person in front of me. I try to give ethical care, but that doesn't mean that I have to be a punching bag, either."

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