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Black workers hit particularly hard by 2020 pandemic


Millions of African-American employees at the nation’s small businesses, restaurants, hotels, bars and manufacturing companies have lost their jobs in recent months because of the coronavirus pandemic. Civil rights groups worry that these workers will be sent in a downward spiral in scraping to pay rent, utility bills and to care for their families.

National civil rights groups have called for an additional federal stimulus outlay to assist low-income workers who are disproportionately represented within communities of color. Because these communities have historically been overlooked in times of economic downturn, many fear that this portion of American society may never regain their financial footing.

“We know that when the economy goes into decline, people of color always bear the brunt,” said Teresa Candor, communications director for the National Urban League. “We will be fighting to make sure vulnerable communities remain viable and are not an afterthought.”

While it remains unclear if Washington’s recovery plans will extend into these distressed communities—who for generations have reeled from institutional racism—the problems of obtaining unemployment benefits; securing childcare; applying “distance learning” while schools are out; and obtaining household necessities remain a constant burden for millions of people.

“If you think about (Hurricane) Katrina, if you think about other catastrophes, a lot of times bailouts ended up taking care of the top earners. The working poor must wait for it to ‘trickle’ down,” said Melanie Campbell, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. The group suggests a more bold approach by the federal government during the pandemic to help keep such vulnerable communities afloat during uncertain times.

Many African-American, Latino, Native Indian and other communities of color witnessed their household income sharply decline during the Great Recession and have yet to fully recover. They worry that the recent financial downturn will set them back even further.

According to data compiled by the Pew Research Center, the median wealth of middle-class Black people fell to $33,600 in 2013, down some 47 percent from before the Great Recession. Twelve years later, the pandemic has resulted in the jobless rate for Blacks to increase to about 16.8 percent, meaning that nearly 1.4 million Black men and about 1.7 million Black women—still technically part of the nation’s work force because they’ve yet to receive unemployment benefits because of a huge backlog—are unemployed today.

Experts still don’t know how many jobs will be ultimately lost because of the outbreak. However, many people who have found themselves out of work—and those just on the brink of maintaining a job—primarily include service workers. These positions employ a significant amount of Black persons.

A study conducted last spring by the Dornsife Center for Economic and Social research at USC revealed that LA County is worse off than the nation as a whole. Before the shutdown, 61 percent of County residents were employed. Now, only 45 percent are, meaning that more than one in every four County residents who were employed at the beginning of March no longer have a job.

The study largely concluded that those hardest hit by the national and worldwide crisis are those who were already hurting—experiencing racism, housing instability, job insecurity and other ills that disproportionately affect marginalized communities.

In June, the number of people filing for unemployment benefits in the U.S. increased by 70,000 to 281,000, according to a Labor Department report. It attributed the initial jump to COVID-19 in citing layoffs in a number of service-oriented fields such as hotels, restaurants and retail establishments. Because many persons of color don’t have the option of working at home, they must weigh the costs of reporting to work (often via public transportation which itself poses a danger to infection) or receiving unemployment benefits while looking for work among 40 million unemployed people.

“You can’t really work from home if you’re waiting tables, cooking, taking care of folks as home aid, or health care workers who are in the hospitals right now,” said Danyelle Soloman, vice president of Race and Ethnic Policy at the Center for American Progress. They released a report indicating that only 20 percent of Black people are able to work from home, compared to 30 percent of White persons. The report also found that Black persons are typically found in low-wage jobs in the service industry and don’t receive comprehensive healthcare and other benefit packages.

“People of color were not sitting in the best economic situation to begin with, and this pandemic is only going to exacerbate that problem,” Soloman said.

Black families have, on average, significantly less in savings to help them weather a period of unemployment, and are reportedly less likely to have families with the resources to assist them. Since the pandemic hit, fewer than half of African-Americans 16 years and older have a job, according to statistics from the Department of Labor.

The next wave of the pandemic could hit one of the underpinnings of the Black middle-class: State and local government jobs. Even as other sectors recorded some gains in June, an additional 571,000 state and local government employees—many of them teachers—have lost their jobs. Black women comprise a significant amount of workers in these positions. The loss of such jobs can be particularly devastating to single-parent households because a paycheck is often the sole lifeline. Even those with a so-called “comfortable” income may have little to fall back on.