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Postal Service cuts imperil ladder to middle class for many Black Americans

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Postal workers say DeJoy’s policies would make it nearly impossible to cope with sweeping changes that are affecting their jobs every day. 

Jonathan Smith, a Black mail-processing equipment mechanic who joined the U.S. Postal Service in 1988, remembers his grandfather being so proud of his career at the agency that he wore his uniform even when he wasn’t working.

“That job made us part of the middle class,” said Smith, 51, whose aunts and uncles also built careers at the Post Office. For many Black Americans, he said, “The Postal Service is that last symbol of the power of the middle class.”

That ticket to economic security could be in jeopardy now. If President Donald Trump and Congress fail to resolve their fight over Postal Service funding, it won’t just put the agency’s financial future at risk. It could imperil one of the country’s longest-running and most reliable civil service jobs, potentially forcing steep cuts to an estimated 669,000-person workforce that is more than one-quarter Black — a rate more than double that of the national labor force.

The sheer reach of the post office in all 50 states combined with the federal government’s anti-discrimination policies have made employment there more accessible than most industries to generations of Black workers. The agency’s pay and benefits often allowed them to share in the American Dream even when racial discrimination was everywhere in the country. A unionized postal worker can make as much as $75,000 a year, well above the national average income.

To be sure, that dream has been gradually eroding throughout the years as Postal Service career employment has declined by more than 37 percent since 1999. That’s largely because of automation and financial difficulties, including a decline in letter mail delivery with the arrival of email and the agency’s struggle to make package delivery profitable.

But the recent troubles are coming at an especially bad time, with the coronavirus-induced recession hitting Black Americans much harder than white Americans. Black Americans are not only nearly three times more likely to be hospitalized for Covid-19, but their unemployment rate was at 14.6 percent in July compared with 9.2 percent for white Americans.

The Labor Department has projected that overall employment of Postal Service workers will decline 21 percent from 2018 to 2028. And Louis DeJoy, Trump’s new postmaster general, has said the agency would freeze hiring and seek future early retirement authority “for employees not represented by a collective bargaining agreement.” On Tuesday, DeJoy said he would halt some key restructuring efforts until after the election following complaints from Congress.

While the debate during the latest round of coronavirus relief talks has focused on whether supplying emergency funds to the post office is needed to preserve election integrity and ensure package delivery, Smith and other workers like him fear even greater damage from Washington’s inaction: It could undo years of gains in racial equity that the USPS helped make possible.

“One of the things that attracted me was its commitment to diversity,” said Smith, who heads the American Postal Workers Union’s New York Metro chapter. “When you come from a predominantly Black community … you come into a melting pot.”

That was certainly true for his grandfather, for whom the job symbolized the opportunities he had found in the North after fleeing the institutionalized racism of the Jim Crow South, he said.

Union officials and the USPS have issued numerous statements over the summer reiterating their confidence that the agency can handle mail-in ballots for November’s election. But Trump’s resistance to sending USPS more funds, worker reports of a slowdown in mail delivery, and the mail carrier’s warning letters sent to 46 states and D.C. about mail-in ballots possibly arriving latechallenge those claims.

Congress recognized that the mail carrier’s financial challenges were being exacerbated by the pandemic when it provided the agency with a $10 billion loan in a March stimulus bill, H.R. 748 (116). But unions and Democrats — for whom Black Americans are the most reliable voter bloc — say the aid needs to go further, calling for $25 billion that the agency wouldn’t have to pay back.

Republican critics of the post office argue that the Trump administration has every right to demand an overhaul of the agency, saying the USPS has suffered for years from mismanagement and inefficiency.

USPS “owes it to the American people to improve their operations — this is a fact that even Democrats agreed with when it was politically convenient to do so,” Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in a statement.

Whereas many other federal agencies are concentrated in specific areas, the USPS — where Black people make up 27 percent of the workforce — has offices across the country. It’s that geographic diversity that, beginning after World War II when Black veterans returned home in search of civilian careers, helped form “the genesis of [USPS] as one of the bulwarks of the Black middle class,” said William Spriggs, an economics professor at Howard University and the AFL-CIO’s chief economist.

“The post office is everywhere,” Spriggs said. “And because it’s less easy to discriminate, it’s an easy route to a federal position.”

‘So you have retirement benefits, you have health care — you have all the things that go with a unionized job.”

Angela Johnson joined the USPS in 1996, working her way up through various mail-processing roles to her current position of general clerk. Now president of APWU’s Northeast Florida chapter, Johnson credits the agency with elevating her and her family to “a better position financially.”

“Many Black families excel through working at the post office,” Johnson, 48, said. “When people first come in, it’s their first job — or their first good job, like it was for me. I was able to do a lot for my kids; it was no longer a struggle for me.”

“It’s going to be a big hit if the post office is not helped. It’s a domino effect for the middle-class Black family who can’t afford that hit.”

For Black workers, that financial security is often more desperately needed than it is for white workers. The net worth of the typical white family is almost 10 times greater than that of a Black family, according to the Brookings Institution — meaning that Black workers rely that much more on their current income than do white workers.

Postal employees “have a secure retirement, secure health benefits — and these are even more valuable to workers of color than they are to white households, who might have inherited money or have other cushions to rely on,” said Monique Morrissey, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute. “This is true in general of the public sector, but it’s especially true of the Postal Service.”

“That’s why the fact that these jobs are being undercut right now has repercussions beyond just the workers themselves, for the Black middle class,” she said.

But it’s not just Black employees who could be affected by the USPS’ decline. Spriggs said many Black families live in rural areas only served by the agency — not FedEx and UPS. Black Americans make up 20 percent of the South’s population, compared with 13 percent in the Northeast and 6 percent in the West, according to the 2010 Census.

The inability to guarantee mail delivery would jeopardize thousands of mail-order prescriptions — a lifeline for the disabled and elderly, many of them veterans, who live in places where traveling to a pharmacy could be costly and time-consuming.

“It’s devastating both from the workers’ side and from the community side,” Spriggs said. “A lot of people forget the majority of Black people live in the South, and a lot of them live in rural communities.”

DeJoy’s efforts to reorganize the mail carrier drew criticism from both parties in Congress, responding to constituents who are suddenly more reliant on the post because of the pandemic.

Postal workers say DeJoy’s policies, including the elimination of overtime and late trips, would make it nearly impossible to cope with sweeping changes that are affecting their jobs every day, including the drop-off in letter mail and an explosion in package delivery.

Unable to work extra hours and with many colleagues on leave to take care of themselves or family members, employees report being forced to head home while many packages and other pieces of mail remain undelivered, a trend they say has resulted in the overall slowdown of mail delivery across the country.

“They took an oath of office when they got hired,” said Judy Beard, political director for the American Postal Workers Union. “And now they’re going home [and] leaving boxes — it could be medicine in the boxes, it could be checks in the envelopes — and they don’t feel comfortable about their work anymore.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on August 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Eleanor Mueller is a legislative reporter for POLITICO Pro, covering policy passing through Congress. She also authors Day Ahead, POLITICO Pro’s daily newsletter rounding up Capitol Hill goings-on.

About the Author: Kellie Mejdrich is a reporter for POLITICO Pro Financial Services.


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Black workers are hurt most as Congress doesn’t extend unemployment

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One mostly unintended—definitely on the Republican side—aspect of the $600 in added unemployment benefits is that it reduced racial disparities. But that means that one aspect of the $600 expiring is that those same racial disparities have come roaring back. Why? Because, for one thing “Black workers disproportionately live in states with the lowest benefit levels and the highest barriers to receiving them,” The New York Times reports. “Without the $60 federal payments, the most an unemployed worker in Florida or Alabama can receive is $275 a week.” Nearly 60% of Black workers live in the South, where state governments have spent decades ensuring workers would have the weakest protections and rights possible. So the additional $600 a week in unemployment benefits has dramatically equalized the situation between states with relatively few Black workers and relatively generous unemployment benefits and those with relatively many Black workers and appallingly weak unemployment insurance.

These disparities aren’t an accident. “Yesterday’s racist system becomes today’s incidental structural racism,” RAND Corporation economist Kathryn Edwards told The New York Times. The added federal benefit also reduced racial disparities by expanding the categories of workers covered by unemployment, since historically another way Black workers have been excluded from government assistance is by excluding the types of work Black workers do from being covered. And frankly, as Republicans resist renewing the additional $600 in unemployment that they allowed to expire, we have to consider the fact that it benefits Black people as one more reason Republicans oppose it.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on August 8, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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The thing about systemic racism is it’s systemic: This week in the war on workers

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According to government statistics, the wage gap between white men and Black men has shrunk dramatically since the 1950s. But that’s only true, The New York Times’ David Leonhardt points out, if you compare workers—and the problem is, a lot of Black men have been pushed out of the workforce, in significant part by mass incarceration. When comparing Black men and white men, regardless of if they work, the wage gap is about the same as it was in 1950. “An end to mass incarceration would help,” Leonhardt writes. “So would policies that attempt to reverse decades of government-encouraged racism—especially in housing. But it’s possible that nothing would have a bigger impact than policies that lifted the pay of all working-class families, across races.” 

It’s the combination of racism and inequality we can see in this pattern that set the stage for the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on Black people. Black people have been more likely to lose their jobs during the pandemic than white people, but they also disproportionately work at essential jobs that require them to expose themselves to possible infection. They’re less likely to have paid sick leave, the ability to work from home, and health insurance. Racism and inequality produce chronic health problems that make Black people more vulnerable to COVID-19. The list goes on and on and on.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on June 27, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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Nearly half of Black immigrant domestic workers lost their jobs during COVID-19, and that’s not all

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Domestic workers are overwhelmingly marginalized workers, and as we know, the coronavirus pandemic has been the hardest on already marginalized people. A new survey of 800 Black immigrant domestic workers in three areas shows just how bad it is for these workers who take care of children, elderly people, and people with disabilities, or who clean homes. The workers’ stress and pain were evident when they spoke to reporters, as Gabe Ortiz wrote. The numbers are staggering, too.

Overall, 45% of the Black immigrant domestic workers surveyed had lost their jobs. Another 25% had their hours or pay reduced. Nearly two out of three were experiencing housing instability, and half don’t have health insurance. But the overall numbers cover big variations between the locations surveyed by the Institute for Policy Studies’ Black Worker Initiative, in partnership with the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance We Dream in Black program: Massachusetts; Miami-Dade, Florida; and New York City. Across the board, workers in Miami-Dade have been the hardest hit.

Job loss: In Massachusetts, 21% of the workers surveyed had lost their jobs. In New York, it was 30% of documented workers and 34% of undocumented workers. In Miami-Dade, 67% of documented workers and 96% of undocumented workers had lost their jobs. (Note: The Massachusetts sample of the survey had very few undocumented workers, so I’m not breaking those numbers out.)

Reduced hours or pay: So many workers lost their jobs in Miami-Dade that the numbers who had hours or pay reduced are comparatively low: 20% for documented workers and 2% for undocumented ones. In Massachusetts, 38% had lost hours or pay. In New York, this was true of 31% of undocumented workers and 28% of documented workers.

Housing instability: 56% of Massachusetts Black immigrant domestic workers reported they were at risk of being evicted or having utilities shut off; in Miami-Dade, 94% of undocumented workers and 85% of documented workers said the same; in New York, it was 60% of undocumented workers and 51% of documented ones.

Lack of personal protective equipment (PPE): Most of the workers didn’t get any PPE from their employers—52% in Massachusetts; 89% in Miami-Dade, where once again undocumented workers fared worse than documented ones; and 75% in New York City, where documented and undocumented workers were about the same.

Medical insurance: Just one in five Massachusetts workers reported lacking medical insurance. (Remember, this is an overwhelmingly documented group of respondents.) Insurance was the biggest documented versus undocumented divide in New York, with 29% of documented workers and 83% of undocumented workers uninsured. Unsurprisingly, the numbers in Miami-Dade were off-the-charts bad, with 100% of undocumented workers and 65% of documented ones uninsured.

Overall, 25% of the Black immigrant domestic workers said they’d experienced COVID-19 symptoms themselves or lived with someone who had—documented workers were more likely to report exposure, “probably because they are more likely to still be employed,” the report notes.

Workers’ access to a safety net was also a major issue, with 49% afraid to seek government assistance because of their immigration status. Immigration status also makes it much more difficult for these workers to find new work—52% said that their immigration status has a negative impact, with the number hitting 67% among undocumented workers.

This pandemic has been brutal to us all, but there can be no doubt that the people it’s hit the hardest—in health risks and economically—are the people who had the least leeway in their lives to begin with. And if you had a domestic worker before the shutdowns and you still have your income? Keep paying her (or, in rare cases, him)!

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on June 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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Black workers are twice as likely to have seen coronavirus-related retaliation by bosses

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Workers—but especially Black workers—say they are afraid that going to work during the coronavirus pandemic risks their own health or that of a family member, but many fear retaliation if they speak up. A new survey by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) finds that, overall, 56% of people going to work fear the risks, but among Black workers, that number is 73%. And many of people going to work afraid are doing so because they fear retaliation from their boss.

The disparities don’t stop there. “Black workers were both more likely to have concerns (80 percent) and were twice as likely as white workers to have unresolved concerns,” NELP reports, “with more than one in three Black workers (39 percent) reporting either that they had raised concerns to their employer about COVID-19 but were unsatisfied with their employer’s response, or that they did not raise concerns for fear of retaliation. By contrast, 18 percent of white workers were in the same situation.”

The fear of retaliation is very real, and again, especially so for Black workers. In response to the question “Have you or has anyone at your company been punished or fired for raising concerns about the risk of coronavirus spreading at the workplace?” 9% of white workers said “yes” or “maybe.” Just over twice as many Black workers—19%—said the same.

Black workers are faced with these fears at a time when a pandemic is hitting Black people especially hard, and, as NELP points out: “Our results suggest that virus transmission in the workplace may be exacerbated by employer repression and that the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black communities may be related to greater exposure of Black workers to repressive workplace environments.” Racism kills—in more than one way.

NELP identifies concrete policy changes that could help with this situation in the workplace. Workers need not only whistleblower protections but “just cause” job protections so that they don’t get promptly fired for supposedly unrelated reasons that anyone halfway honest can tell are pure pretext. But workers do need strong anti-retaliation policies, such as: “Any adverse employer action taken against an employee within 90 days of that employee raising such concerns should be presumed to be retaliatory.”

Workers should have the right to refuse dangerous work. They should be able to take their employers to court, and employers should face meaningful penalties, not just a slap on the wrist. And, painfully relevant in this moment in which Republicans are trying to force people back to unsafe jobs by threatening their unemployment benefits: “Unemployment insurance rules should make clear that workers who quit or are fired from dangerous jobs, or refuse to work under dangerous conditions, should be eligible for unemployment benefits.”

Such policies won’t fix the racism in people’s hearts, but by giving Black workers protections and rights, they might create somewhat more equal outcomes on the job. Which is worth a lot, especially when the question is: “Can I insist my employer protect my health without losing my job?”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on June 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.


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Black Workers Say Walmart’s Background Checks Are Racially Discriminatory

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When Walmart announced in January that it was “in-sourcing” its Elwood, Illinois, distribution center, workers were cautiously optimistic.

Since it opened in 2006, the 3.4 million-square-foot warehouse has been operated by Schneider Logistics, a third-party contractor, which in turn hired workers through temp agencies. Walmart’s plan to absorb several of its outsourced warehouses nationwide meant an end to this web of subcontracting, which labor organizers charge is one of the company’s union-busting tactics.

The retail giant also announced that it would rehire as many current warehouse workers as possible, with raises in starting pay and benefits. Mark Balentine, who has performed quality assurance in the Elwood warehouse for three years, says he was offered and accepted the same position as a Walmart employee. It came with a pay bump from $16.35 an hour to $18.65.

“I was absolutely excited,” says Balentine.

But last month, just three weeks before Walmart was set to take over, Balentine says he received an e-mail informing him he was ineligible to work for the company based on the results of a criminal background check. He has a conviction for cocaine possession on his record that dates back to 1999.

Now 52, Balentine says he mentors youth leaving prison and is an ordained deacon at his Baptist church in Auburn-Gresham. He says the conviction hasn’t posed a problem for him in years.

Balentine is one of two Black workers who filed racial discrimination charges against Walmart this week, alleging that the company’s background check policies had a disparate impact on African Americans in the Elwood facility.

Between 100 and 200 other African American workers may have been affected, according to Chris Williams, an attorney with the National Legal Advocacy Network, which filed the complaint with the Illinois Department of Human Rights and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). A class-action suit could follow.

Walmart says its hiring practices exceed state and federal legal requirements and provide candidates with criminal records “a meaningful opportunity to put the record in context.”

“Retaining as many existing employees as possible has always been the goal of our transition at the Elwood distribution center, and we hired hundreds of those workers,” said spokesperson Kory Lundberg in a statement e-mailed to In These Times. “We understand the importance of providing second chances and our background checks include a thoughtful and transparent review process to help ensure everyone is treated fairly.”

But the complaint alleges that the company failed to perform any such individualized review of African American workers’ eligibility, which is part of guidance on employers’ use of criminal background checks issued by the EEOC in 2012.

Instead, according to Balentine, laid-off workers were given “$250 and a slice of pizza” and told they could reapply through the same process in 60 days.

“They told me to ‘roll the dice and try again,’” says Balentine. “And I was like, ‘this is my life.’”

Lundberg said that some candidates with criminal records “were offered a position after a personalized review of their offense,” but did not provide further details by press time.

According to the complaint, “other non-African employees with criminal backgrounds have been permitted to continue working at the Walmart distribution center.”

As many as 100 million Americans have some form of criminal record that can impact their access to jobs, housing and other public services. People with felony convictions, which are most likely to result in exclusion, represent an estimated 8 percent of the overall U.S. population and 33 percent of the African American male population.

A growing number of states and municipalities have attempted to address racially discriminatory hiring through “Ban the Box” laws that bar government employers or contractors from including questions about criminal background on job applications. Twelve states also bar private employers from doing so.

But racial discrimination in the temporary staffing industry is notoriously difficult to address. A series of lawsuits in Illinois and elsewhere have accused staffing agencies of discriminating against Black workers by, among other things, requiring them to submit to criminal background checks to which other workers are not subjected.

Exclusion of workers with a criminal record is “a huge issue in the warehouse industry,” says Roberto Jesus Clack, associate director of Warehouse Workers for Justice. The Illinois-based worker center holds monthly expungement workshops and organized meetings for the group of Elwood workers.

Elwood is located in Will County, which is home to more than 300 warehouses in total and a maze of temp agencies. When workers have raised complaints about wage theft and horrific working conditions—including during a landmark 2012 warehouse strike—a maze of subcontracting has made it difficult to hold either Walmart or Schneider Logistics responsible. While insourcing could represent “a step in the right direction,” says Clack, Walmart introducing new barriers to employment is instead a step backward.

“I’m looking out for the person behind me,” says Balentine. “The 17-year-old that’s getting in trouble today and who sees what happens to me and then he decides, ‘What’s the point in changing? They aren’t going to give me a chance anyway.'”

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 25, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebecca Burns is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Baffler, the Chicago Reader, The Intercept and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.


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Black workers are still not sharing in the bounty of nation-wide employment gains

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Embedded in the nation’s increasingly favorable unemployment statistics — the country is currently in the midst of a record decline in the number of out-of-work Americans — is the persistent fact that black workers aren’t sharing equitably in this rampant job growth.

In September, the most recent period when figures are available, approximately 134,000 jobs were created and the national unemployment rate dropped to 3.7 percent, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s fantastic news for the nation at large.

But if you drill down into the bureau’s figures, you’ll find that black workers are not celebrating on par with their white colleagues. At 6 percent, the black unemployment rate is nearly twice that of white workers, at 3.3 percent. By way of comparison, Latino workers posted a 4.5 percent unemployment rate, and the Asian rate was nearly equal to whites’ at 3.5 percent.

(October’s unemployment figures are scheduled to be released on Friday. Analysts expect a continuation of these trends with little-to-no narrowing of the gap between white and black employment.)

In a recently released state-by-state review of unemployment rates by race and ethnicity for the third quarter of 2018, Janelle Jones, an analyst at the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute, found that 12 states have a black unemployment rate that is at least twice as large as the white unemployment rate. What’s more, in each of the 21 states and the District of Columbia, for which figures were available, the black unemployment rate was higher in each of them than it was for white Americans.

Jones’ findings further underscore the fact that even as the nation climbs back from its pre-recession unemployment level, the bounty isn’t filling the pocketbooks of black Americans. For instance, she found the nation’s highest black unemployment rate was in the District of Columbia at 12.4 percent, producing a 6.2-to-1 disparity with white workers in the Nation’s Capitol. Worse, the District has the dubious distinction of having the highest black unemployment rate during the previous eight quarters — this despite the fact that Washington, DC and its surroundings are the third-richest metropolitan area in the country and home to the most affluent population on the East Coast.

Other high unemployment states for black workers included Illinois (9.3 percent), Louisiana (8.5 percent), Alabama (7.1 percent, and New York (7 percent). The lowest unemployment rate for black Americans were Massachusetts and Virginia, both with (3.8 percent).

Among Latino workers, the highest state unemployment rate is in Nebraska (5.9 percent), followed by Connecticut (5.7 percent), Arizona (5.6 percent), Pennsylvania (5.6 percent), and Washington (5.6 percent).

In two states — Colorado and Georgia — the Hispanic unemployment rate was lower than the white unemployment rate. In Colorado, Latino workers’ 2.3 percent unemployment rate was lower than the 2.9 percent rate for white workers, and in Georgia, Latino unemployment rate was 2.8 percent, compared to 3 percent for white workers.

“As the economy continues to recover, all racial and ethnic groups are making employment gains,” Jones said in a statement released with her report earlier this week. “But policymakers should make sure that the recovery reaches everyone before taking their foot off the gas.”

Bloomberg columnist Justin Fox agreed, writing recently that “[b]lack Americans really have been making employment gains in recent years – and they’ll probably keep making them as long as this expansion continues. Which is one more reason to root for it to keep going.”

As Fox described it the falling unemployment rate is, on the whole, a positive development for all Americans, especially black workers in their “prime working” ages between 25 and 54. At present, he said the gap between black and white workers in that realm is at an “all-time low” (noting that such figures can only be compared since 1994 when the federal government began reporting “prime working age” economic figures).

But Andre Perry, a Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program Fellow, cautioned against celebrating too soon. In a recent U.S. News & World Report interview he argued it’s way too early to cheer the economy’s recovery so long as a racial gap exists in employment.

“We need to start talking about prosperity and not whether people have a job. We need to start looking more deeply at equality,” said Perry, who focuses his research on majority-black populated cities in the U.S. “Because when black folks are doing well, that really means America is doing well.”

In other words, Perry says the celebratory narrative on the economy is almost exclusively the story of impressive gains for white workers and tolerance for black workers who continually lag behind.

“Right now, when we’re looking at full employment, what we’re really saying is this is a state of white employment,” Perry said. “We’re willing to base our monetary policy upon that stage and not really cater to the black unemployment rate that is still wanting. You can be at full employment in one population and be in a recession in another. . . . We need to start recognizing these disparities, or we’re going to become more comfortable with them.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on November 2, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sam Fulwood is a columnist for ThinkProgress who analyzes the influence of national politics and domestic policies on communities of color across the United States.


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Black Livelihoods Matter: The Civil Justice System Needs Reform Too

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downloadThe Black Lives Matter movement has brought much-needed attention to the disparity in the way our criminal justice system treats African Americans.

But there’s another side of American justice that matters too: our civil courts.

In the United States today, the civil justice system is the last line of defense for workers who have faced discrimination on the job. And not just for individuals, either. Lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits have been the most effective way to force recalcitrant employers to take action against discrimination.

Still, our courthouses are not open to all. As a black lawyer who focuses on employment discrimination, I’ve seen first-hand how access to the courts, the racial makeup of law firms and the way cases are handled can throw up barriers to justice.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to how black workers’ cases get derailed.

Step 1: Black workers are more likely to represent themselves.

Few people can afford to pay an employment attorney up front. Instead, most lawyers in the field work on contingency—meaning they will only get paid if the worker receives a cash award. That makes these cases financially risky for lawyers, who might get nothing for hours of work if the case is dismissed. As a result, it can be hard for many workers to find an employment lawyer.

But for black workers, the problem is even worse. A study commissioned by the American Bar Association found that black plaintiffs are 2.5 times more likely than white plaintiffs to file employment discrimination claims pro se, or without a lawyer. Other racial minorities, including Hispanics and Asians, are 1.9 times more likely to file pro se than their white counterparts.

Winning an employment case is already difficult, even under the best circumstances. Pro se litigants, assuming that they can even get their cases inside a courtroom, are almost guaranteed to lose—no matter how strong the details of their case may be.

For example, litigants may be required to file their case with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within a certain number of days, and that time limit varies by state. Workers representing themselves may miss that deadline, and lose their cases before they even start.

Step 2: Attorneys are less likely to take cases involving black workers.

Even when black workers have found an attorney who might be interested in their case, they are less likely to get help. The ABA study found that the way employment attorneys screen their cases can contribute to the racial disparity.

In some cases, employment attorneys charge expensive consultation fees before considering a potential client. Black workers who can’t afford those fees never get in the front door. In other cases, the ABA study found that attorneys favored clients based on criteria that weren’t related to the merits of their case, such as perceived demeanor, mannerisms or a personal referral.

The disparity in pay between black and white workers adds to the problem. Because lost wages are a major part of the case, workers who make less money will receive smaller payouts. For employment attorneys who have to work for free upfront, that means less money at the back end.

Step 3: Juries aren’t always sympathetic to black workers.

Even when employment cases make it to trial, the worker still has only a 15 percent chance of winning, compared to a 50 percent win rate for other types of plaintiffs.

That means employment cases are particularly sensitive to jurors’ beliefs and prejudices. If a jury does not find the plaintiff’s story credible, or doesn’t believe that discrimination occurred, or doubts whether discrimination is all that common anyway—the worker loses.

In addition, damages for emotional distress are allowed in many employment discrimination cases. But jurors may not be as willing to provide them to black workers even when they have found in favor of them overall due to prejudices about their mythical inner strength or whether discrimination is serious.

The end result is that the same discrimination that black workers face in the workplace can also negatively affect them in the eyes of a jury.

Step 4: Even if they win, they are often awarded less money.

Workers who win their cases can receive money for emotional distress, punitive damages intended to send a message to the employer and lost wages. Under federal law, those first two amounts are limited between $50,000 and $300,000, levels set in 1991 that have not been adjusted since. (If they had been pegged to the Consumer Price Index, the cap would be closer to $525,000.)

Generally, the largest award in employment cases is for lost wages. Employees who win their cases can only get the difference between what they made since being illegally fired and what they would have made had they not been fired.

Black employees, on average, make less than white employees. As a result, black employees bringing discrimination cases are disproportionately affected by caps for damages for lost wages. This means that these employees have less leverage to negotiate an out-of-court settlement with employers prior to trial because of the low risk to the employer of having to pay a significant judgment—if the employee prevails at trial. As a result, employers may have less incentive to adequately address discrimination against black employees.

The deep-seated flaws in our civil justice system cannot be ignored. It’s a problem that needs to be addressed by employers, legal professionals, and lawmakers. There needs to be a serious examination as to why black employees who have often been unlawfully excluded from the workplace are then again denied recourse through the legal system.

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post on October 10, 2016. Reprinted with permission. 

Phillis h. Rambsy is a partner with the Spiggle Law Firm, which has offices in Arlington, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Nashville, Tennessee. Her legal practice focuses on workplace law where she represents employees in matters of wrongful termination and employment discrimination including racial discrimination, pregnancy discrimination, and other family-care issues such as caring for a sick child or an elderly parent. To learn more, visit www.spigglelaw.com.


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Here’s Some History to Help Understand the Racial Wealth Gap

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A company of 4th Regiment U.S. Colored Troops, (USCT) Infantry/Wikimedia

William Spriggs Next month is Black History Month. We will hear stories about black Americans and their successes in this country against the barriers (slavery, Jim Crow, poll tax just to name a few) thrown in their paths. Yet for every success story, there is still the nagging fact that the median net wealth of white households is 12.2 times greater than that of black households.

Because of well-documented gaps in unemployment rates, earnings, poverty and wealth, black working people are sometimes falsely seen as “bystanders” to America’s economy.  Unbelievably, there is a tendency to observe the gaps in economic success and blame African Americans for being disengaged and not trying to respond to clear economic realities; a lack of investment in education, skills, training and personal saving. This is patently absurd.

African Americans are fully aware of the barriers they face to success, and have been steadfast to struggle to remove them.  Indeed, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated during a campaign by black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., to exercise their right to organize, strike and demand fair wages; a key theme of American worker advancement during the first 80 years of the last century and one repeated this past Dr. King Holiday by airport workers demanding a living wage.

The difference in wealth does not grow smaller when comparing white and black households headed by college graduates, or when controlling for differences in income.  Because the easy answers like education and income differences don’t explain the wealth gap—which measures accumulated savings over multiple generations—the fall back is often to blame the savings’ behavior of blacks.  And, here, old stereotypes of African Americans being profligate can easily substitute for documentation. But taking a closer look at history tells us the real story.

Those early years after emancipation are key in addressing the deep history of African Americans as their own agents.  During the Civil War, African American leaders, most famously, Frederick Douglass, campaigned hard to have black soldiers officially sworn into the fight to end slavery.  With issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln also finally signed on that in 1863 not only would slaves in the rebellious states be free, but African American men would join the United States Army and Navy in quelling the Southern revolt.  Close to 180,000 black men signed-up as official members of America’s Armed Forces to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.  They became the largest paid workforce of African American men to that point in America’s history.

The issue quickly arose as to where could they deposit their paychecks?  A few fledgling efforts were made to start banks.  And, that effort culminated with the establishment of the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust by Congressional act in March 1865; the Freedmen’s Bureau bank.  Recently the U.S. Department of Treasury and Secretary Jack Lew dedicated an annex to honor the Freedmen’s Bureau Bank.

By 1870, the bank operated 37 branches throughout the South, with African Americans trained as branch managers.  In all, almost 70,000 African Americans made deposits in the bank, reaching savings of about $57 million.  Those facts stand to clearly demonstrate the efforts of a people, subject to slavery, freed with nothing from their previous labors to start anew having built wealth for others for free.

But, fate would intervene.  The accumulation of those savings came during a period when the federal government still stood in the way of restoring the South’s old hegemony of white southern planters.  And, it came when the nation’s banks were still conservative following the uncertainties of the Civil War.  Southern banking laid prostrate, devastated by the collapse of the Confederacy and the meaningless holdings of Confederate dollars, and the long mystery of the disappearance of the gold reserves that backed that currency on its desperate journey south from Richmond, Virginia in April 1865 as Robert E. Lee surrendered the fighting cause at Appomattox Court House under the vigilant eyes of 2,000 black men in seven units of the United States Colored Troops.

By the start of the 1870’s, the expansion west made possible by the Homestead Act and transcontinental railroad—both enacted during the Civil War—restored the nation’s prosperity and financial zeal.  The result was over speculation in railroading.  In Europe, financial pressures mounted from the Franco-Prussian War.  Germany refused to continue issuing silver coins.  This resulted in plummeting silver prices, and the eventual move by the United States to go from backing its currency in silver and gold, to use only the gold standard.  This led to the collapse of investments in silver mines in the western United States.  The result was a global financial collapse that swept Europe and the United States in 1873.  With it came the collapse of the U.S. banking system.

Sound familiar?  And, that collapse decimated the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust as well.  At a time of general financial collapse and no Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation—a creation learned from the Great Depression—many depositors lost their savings.  The millions in savings of the newly free went away, too.  Not too different than the 240,000 homes that disappeared from the African American community after the financial collapse of 2007.

In 1876, a compromise to resolve the Presidential election resulted in the removal of federal protection of African Americans in the South.  The end of reconstruction meant the restoration of southern white hegemony and the evisceration of voting rights for African Americans, the protection of the access to many occupations and the limiting of their equal access to education.  This too sounds familiar.

To accurately measure history, it takes measuring all the hills and valleys right.  Dedicating a building to the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust allows us to properly assess the toil and efforts of African Americans.  It shows the hard work and industrious nature of a determined people.  It reminds us of the mountains of betrayal as well.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on January 22, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

William E. Spriggs is the Chief Economist for AFL-CIO. His is also a Professor at Howard University. Follow Spriggs on Twitter: @WSpriggs.


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