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Black workers, hammered by pandemic, now being left behind in recovery

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Black Americans, who were among the hardest hit by coronavirus layoffs, are now recovering at the slowest rate, a one-two punch that threatens to worsen the United States’ already stark wealth and income disparities long after the pandemic recedes.

While Hispanic workers initially saw the sharpest uptick in unemployment when business shutdowns began last spring, Black people have seen a slower return to work even as the economy is poised for a robust rebound, government data and economic analyses show. When the overall unemployment rate ticked down in February, Black workers were the only group that saw a rise in joblessness, a 0.7 percentage point increase.

The share of Black Americans holding jobs also dropped over the month while it continued to move up for all other races and ethnicities. Over the past year, white, Asian and Hispanic Americans have regained roughly two-thirds of their initial job losses in terms of what share of their population is working, a key measure of labor and unemployment known as the “employment-population ratio.” Black workers have only recovered slightly more than half.

The data has fueled fears that the nascent recovery will not be evenly shared, a dynamic that would exacerbate income and wealth inequality while prolonging the return to full employment. The trend is reminiscent of the Great Recession, when Black workers saw a worse downturn and slower rate of return to normal. And this time, it has caught the attention of top policymakers across the Biden administration and in Congress.

“We’re trying to make sure that it is not like so many other recoveries,” said House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the most senior Black lawmaker in Congress and chair of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis. “Slow for everybody, and a snail’s pace for Black and brown communities.”

The headwinds that Black workers face are plenty, some unique to the coronavirus recession but others the result of structural inequities that have long contributed to high rates of unemployment — typically double that of white workers even in strong economies.

For one, many of the industries in which Black workers are heavily represented are not recovering as quickly as others as the economy reopens — or are even continuing to backslide. State and local governments have long been a major employer for African Americans. But while the labor market broadly improved last month, state and local governments shed another 83,000 jobs and remain down 1.4 million workers from a year ago.

“Those sectors in which the rebound is really not happening, or not happening in impactful ways, are really almost the same industries in which African Americans are overrepresented,” said Michelle Holder, a labor economist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. She cited transportation, a major employer for Black men, and health services, where Black women are heavily represented, as two other industries that have taken longer to come back, keeping the unemployment rate high.

The devastation of the child care sector amid the shutdowns has also heavily affected Black and Hispanic women, who are more likely to work at child care centers and to depend on them in order to be able to take jobs elsewhere.

And while employment in high-wage sectors has almost completely recovered, low-wage industries remain down 28 percent from a year ago, according to Harvard’s Opportunity Insights tracker — a disparity that disproportionately affects workers of color.

Structural inequities in the U.S. labor market that have affected Black and Hispanic workers’ ability to advance out of low-paying jobs, as well as discrimination in hiring practices, are also likely having an effect, some economists say.

When unemployment spiked in April, the gap between Black and white rates of joblessness narrowed significantly, indicating the losses were spread across the board. But it has steadily grown since then as white workers have returned to work faster — which William Spriggs, chief economist at the AFL-CIO, said he took as “proof” of the effect of discriminatory hiring practices.

Spriggs also said that for much of the past year, unemployment has been higher for all Black workers, including those with college degrees, than for those of all races with less than a high school education.

“This is not a matter of skills,” Spriggs said. “It’s a matter of the way discrimination takes place within the recovery.”

One way to address the slower recovery among workers of color is to ensure that federal support remains in place as long as Black and Hispanic unemployment remains elevated, advocates say, rather than cut it off once the levels return closer to normal. And given that these workers typically remain out of work the longest, President Joe Biden will need a prolonged economic recovery to ensure the labor market gets tight enough to pull them back in from the sidelines.

Clyburn’s focus is two-fold: tracking the Covid relief money as it goes out to ensure that it’s being spent equitably, and pushing the Biden administration to invest heavily in a second stimulus package focused on infrastructure, which would spark job creation across the country.

Clyburn said he has spoken about the need to address the uneven recovery with both Biden and Susan Rice, the president’s top domestic policy adviser, adding that Biden has made clear “he plans to do the right thing.”

There are signs the administration is focused on the disparities. The White House Council of Economic Advisers highlighted adjusted unemployment rates, which include those who have given up the search for work, broken down by race and gender after the latest jobs data was released for February. The report showed that the Black unemployment rate stood at nearly 15 percent — affecting nearly 1 in 6 workers — compared to an overall rate of 9.5 percent. The adjusted Hispanic unemployment rate is 12.4 percent.

At the Labor Department, chief economist Janelle Jones penned a blog post last month stressing the disproportionate economic impact of the pandemic on Black Americans, particularly women.

And Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell says he is tracking the Black and Hispanic unemployment rates, among other statistics, because elevated joblessness there signals weakness in the broader labor market.

“This particular downturn, of course, was just a direct hit on a part of the economy that employs many minorities and lower paid workers… and it’s the slowest part of the economy to recover,” Powell said at a March 17 press conference. “We’d like to see those people continue to get support as the broader economy recovers, as it’s very much doing now.”

The longer the rate of recovery for Black workers continues to lag, the more likely it is to have a lasting impact. Workers who fall into long-term unemployment — defined as being out of a job for six months or more — take longer to return to work and are more likely to drop out of the labor market entirely.

Black workers are also far less likely to have had savings to lean on to weather an extended period of joblessness — the net worth of an average Black family is about one-tenth that of a white family — and therefore more vulnerable to falling into debt or losing their homes. And another prolonged economic recovery for Black Americans could worsen the already dramatic racial wealth gap, particularly as it drags on both personal savings and future earnings.

The key to addressing the inequities lies in promoting a strong economic recovery for everyone, while recognizing that some communities and workers will take longer to return to normal and require more help than others, economists say.

“People love the quote [from] John F. Kennedy, ‘A rising tide lifts all boats.’ It lifts all the boats that got solid bottoms,” Clyburn said. “If the bottoms got holes in them or if the boats have deteriorated, a rising tide ain’t gonna lift them.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on March 23, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro.


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The Pandemic’s Impact on Workers and Looking Towards a Just Recovery

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NELP’s roadmap for a Just Recovery is based on our vision for bold structural change and on our fall 2020 survey of workers on the COVID frontlines, people who lost their jobs, and other community members seriously impacted by this disease and the failure of so many of our lawmakers and employers to properly address its dangers.

Our findings illustrated how structural racism created the pre-conditions for Black communities and other communities of color to suffer the most during the pandemic, from our health to our wallets.

It’s a disturbing picture, and one that public officials can only hope to address if they start listening to workers’ demands immediately.

Here were some of our major findings on the effects of the pandemic: 

  • 34% of Black workers had a claim for Unemployment Insurance, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation denied;
  • Covering rent, utility, credit card, student loan, medical, and living expenses got harder for a large share of U.S. households, particularly those of frontline workers and Black and Latinx workers;
  • A significant share of all workers, and a larger share of working Black and Indigenous people and other people of color, say that fear of employer retaliation would prevent them from refusing unsafe work;
  • Workers classified as independent contractors and workers employed by temporary help and staffing agencies were 2X as likely have lost income than other workers.

This blog originally appeared at NELP on March 18, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: National Employment Law Project is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting underpaid and unemployed workers. 


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COVID-19 highlights the racism of the tipped minimum wage, this week in the war on workers

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Black workers have been hit so hard during the coronavirus pandemic, and a full accounting of the hits is not yet complete. We know that Black people have been disproportionately likely to get sick, to be hospitalized, and to die from COVID-19. That they’ve been more likely to face job loss during the pandemic (when they aren’t being exposed to the virus at essential but underpaid jobs). That they’ve been less likely to get unemployment benefits. A recent report from One Fair Wage adds another angle to this litany of racist impacts: racist tipping practices.

Black tipped workers already earned less than white ones before the pandemic. It got worse.

“Since the pandemic, Black tipped workers were far more likely to report their tips had decreased by half or greater compared to workers overall (88% v 78%)—confirming that the racial bias that existed in tipping prior to the pandemic was exacerbated during the pandemic,” One Fair Wage reports. “Black workers were also far more likely to report their tips had decreased due to enforcing COVID-19 safety measures than workers in general—in other words, Black workers were penalized far more than other workers for trying to enforce social distancing and mask rules (73% v 62%)—making it more challenging for them to enforce these rules and thus further exposing themselves and the public to the virus.”

The answer is obvious: Tipped workers should be paid the full minimum wage (which should itself be raised) so that they’re not so dependent on individual customers.

? Union members from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers will be picketing the Super Bowl to protest Frontier Communications—which has a corporate partnership with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—proposing to cut health care and retirement benefits in ongoing contract negotiations.

Ohio auto parts workers went on strike to unionize, and when that didn’t succeed, petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for recognition.

How the PRO Act would restore workers’ freedom to join a union.

In the shadow of COVID-19, ACLU joins nonprofit unionization surge.

Former AFL-CIO President John Sweeney is dead at 86. Sweeney was a major figure in moving the labor federation to a more activist and inclusive stance.

Enormous VA union contract moves toward uncertain conclusion under Biden administration:

In early January, members voted to reject a proposed contract that they say was insufficient and one-sided. After that, a 30-day mediation period began. That mediation period expires this week. Because of some delays on the VA’s side in appointing a negotiator, the union is hoping for an extension, though it is unclear what a final timetable will be. What is certain is that after a process that has been marked by lawsuits, intransigence, political battles, and charges of bad faith, there are still significant outstanding issues to be settled.

“We’ve alleged from the beginning that the VA’s never really come to the table with a sincere desire to reach agreement. There’s been a lot of bad faith behavior,” says Thomas Dargon, AFGE’s acting supervisory attorney working on the National Veterans Affairs Council (NVAC). ?“What we’ve been asking for all along is for them to come to the table seriously.”

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on February 6, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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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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