14 COVID-19 Widens Disparities for Black, Indigenous, and Other Workers of Color

Jamillah Bowman Williams, 2021-01-14

COVID-19 has highlighted how weak labor protections disproportionately impact Black, Indigenous, and other workers of color (BIPOC). Those workers are overrepresented in essential jobs and low-wage work (Geary, Palacios, and Tatum 2020). As a result, they risk exposure to COVID-19 in jobs with insufficient benefits and limited bargaining power. Advocates should build upon the current racial justice movement to advocate for collective worker power and change in workplace conditions.

14.1 Structural Racism

Because BIPOC workers in the U.S. have unequal access to housing, healthcare, and wealth, there have been enormous disparities in infection rates, deaths, testing, and access to treatment during COVID-19. BIPOC workers are more likely to suffer COVID-19 exposure, because they are more likely to rely on public transportation (Maxwell 2020); live in multigenerational homes or apartment complexes (Cohn and Passel 2018); have jobs without a remote work option; and receive a level of work pay and benefits that discourages them from missing work when they are sick (Taylor 2019).

Black and Latinx Americans are three times as likely to become infected with COVID-19 as white Americans (Oppel et al. 2020). Indigenous Americans are also more likely to become infected with COVID-19 compared to white Americans. Although Indigenous Americans are only 11% of the population in New Mexico, they accounted for nearly 37% of COVID infections early in the pandemic (Stafford, Hoyer, and Morrison 2020) and almost 19% of cases as of November 2020 (New Mexico Department of Heath n.d.).

If infected, BIPOC workers face more serious health impacts. Due to residential segregation, workers of color are more likely to lack access to hospitals and other health care providers (Gaskin, Dinwiddie, Chan, and McCleary 2012a, 2012b). Compared to their white counterparts, Black workers face higher risk of chronic illness, infection, and injuries, and are less likely to be covered under employer health insurance (Taylor 2019). BIPOC workers are also more likely to become ill, because of a higher rate of preexisting health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2019), due to the aforementioned disparities.

Accordingly, Black and Indigenous Americans have the highest rates of death from COVID-19, with Black Americans dying at more than twice the rate of white and Asian Americans (Figure 14.1; graph from APM Research Lab Staff 2020).

COVID-19 Death Rates (per 100,000 People) In All States, June 9 - Nov. 10, 2020

Figure 14.1: COVID-19 Death Rates (per 100,000 People) In All States, June 9 - Nov. 10, 2020

These percentages remain true in urban, suburban, and rural areas, as well as across age groups. For variation by State, see APM Research Lab Staff (2020);and COVID-19 Tracking Project (n.d.).

14.2 Unemployment

Because of COVID-19, the Black unemployment rate rapidly reached historic highs in early 2020. Even as it has slowly declined from those peaks, it continues to be roughly twice the white unemployment rate (Ajilore 2020). Current unemployment measures also underestimate harm by not accounting for furloughs or reduced hours, wages, or benefits many workers suffer due to the virus (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2020e). And pandemic-specific non-response bias in surveys are likely leading to understated unemployment rates among marginalized groups (Rothbaum and Bee 2020).

An estimated one-third of US job losses may become permanent due to the pandemic and policymakers’ inadequate response to it (Rockeman and Ward 2020). Roughly 86% of those jobs are low wage (Lund et al. 2020). Leisure, hospitality, and other service sector workers, with lower wages and with worse benefits, are the most likely to be unemployed due to COVID-19. This affects more Black Americans, particularly Black women, who are overrepresented within the low-wage workforce and among essential workers (Dohms-Harter 2020; Nunn, O’Donnell, and Shambaugh 2020; Escobari, Seyal, and Meaney 2019).

As states reopened, unemployment fell, but not for Black Americans. While the unemployment rate for white Americans was nearly halved from 14.2% in May to 7.3% in August 2020, the unemployment rate for Black Americans, at 13.0%, had fallen only 3.8 percentage points from its peak (Cheng 2020).

Current policies fail to account for COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on Black Americans. For example, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which provides funds for businesses to keep employees on the payroll during closures, has funded medium and large corporations rather than small businesses (U.S. Small Business Administration n.d.). Many Black-owned small businesses had trouble accessing emergency PPP loans and could not get federal aid to stay afloat (Lederer and Oros 2020).

Stronger state worker protections can reduce COVID-19’s impact on vulnerable workers (Escobari, Seyal, and Meaney 2019). Before COVID-19 spread widely, hospitality and retail workers in Nevada had negotiated stronger union protections that preserved health care benefits (Valencia 2020), secured recall rights to laid-off workers (Valley 2020), and advocated for safe and equitable reopening procedures (Fuchs 2020). The U.S. can also provide effective relief for Black workers through paycheck guarantee programs where the state or federal government steps in to pay workers directly while requiring employers to keep them on the payroll and maintain their benefits (Hamilton 2020). Countries like Germany, Denmark, and France, where the unemployment rate rose only fractionally during COVID-19, use paycheck guarantee programs (Leibenluft 2020).

14.3 Essential Workers

BIPOC workers are more likely to be classified as essential, suffer from inadequate union protections, and receive less compensation than white counterparts due to historic inequality. As a result, they are more likely to return to work in risky environments, including those that present a high risk of COVID-19 exposure.

BIPOC workers are more likely than white workers to be classified as essential workers in high risk industries, and women of color make up the majority of essential healthcare workers (McNicholas and Poydock 2020). Fifty-nine percent of women working as home health and personal care aides are women of color. In the meatpacking industry, over 44% of workers are Latinx; roughly 25% are Black; and among frontline meatpacking workers, more than 50% are immigrants.

BIPOC workers also make up a disproportionate number of frontline workers (such as grocery store clerks, nurses, cleaners, warehouse workers, and bus drivers) and a majority of the restaurant workforce (Rho, Brown, and Fremstad 2002). As restaurants reopen, Black women in particular face grave health risks, but are not being adequately compensated–restaurant tips are down at least 50% in an industry which already had some of the lowest median hourly wages in the country. And in tipped positions, Black workers receive less in tips than their white counterparts regardless of position or experience. These disparities are made worse by a history of wealth inequality, particularly in low wage sectors.

BIPOC workers in low wage positions are also more susceptible to the virus because many of them lack access to telework. Although roughly 37% of US jobs can be performed via telework, those jobs are mainly in professional and technical occupations and management positions held primarily by white, affluent Americans (Cleveland et al. 2020). In contrast, only 1 in 100 employees are able to telecommute in the service industry, where one-fifth of Black and Hispanic men work (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2019c).

Moreover, Black workers are overrepresented in industries with inadequate protections for essential workers, such as food and agriculture. Healthcare and food and agriculture are some of the highest-risk industries for COVID-19, but have some of the lowest unionization rates (McNicholas and Poydock 2020). Meatpacking plants have emerged, along with hospitals and nursing homes, as hot spots for COVID-19. To date, more than 33,000 coronavirus cases have been tied to meat and poultry plants, which frequently lack adequate workplace safety protections such as basic PPE, hand sanitizers, washing facilities, socially distanced work areas, and other measures recommended by the CDC (Grabell, Yeung, and Jameel 2020). And 87% of the COVID-19 related deaths connected to meat and poultry plants were BIPOC workers (Waltenburg et al. 2020).

14.4 Safety and Health Risks

The federal government has largely failed to protect essential workers from dangerous conditions and exposure to COVID-19. This failure thus exacerbates this history of unsafe work conditions for BIPOC workers. Even though meatpacking plants, hospitals, and nursing homes have become hotspots for the virus, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has not prioritized essential workers like meatpackers in its COVID-19 enforcement efforts. Employers in meatpacking plants failed to implement social distancing measures for employees and failed to provide employees with personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks. Nearly 4,000 workers from across the country have filed complaints with OSHA with concerns that their employers haven’t done enough to protect them from COVID-19. About a quarter of OSHA complaints came from the healthcare industry (Grabell, Yeung, and Jameel 2020).

BIPOC workers work in areas with more exposure to the virus and already suffer higher fatality rates than white workers (Berkowitz 2020). In the meatpacking industry, over 44% of workers are Latinx, roughly one quarter are Black, and among frontline meatpacking workers, more than half are immigrants (Raghu and Sekaran 2020). Most farmworkers are immigrants and people of color. Because many BIPOC workers are essential and frontline workers, they risk losing their jobs and access to crucial health benefits unless they continue to work, even in facilities that inadequately protect them from the virus.

Over 70% of Black workers reported going to work even though they believed they were seriously risking their health and safety, compared with 49% of white workers. Moreover, Black workers were twice as likely as white workers to report that they or someone at work may have been punished or fired for raising concerns about COVID-19 spreading in the workplace (Tung and Padin 2020). Meanwhile, OSHA has not done enough to reduce COVID-19 exposure at work (Hudak and Henry-Nickie 2020; Grabell, Yeung, and Jameel 2020; Telford 2020).

14.5 Insufficient Benefits

Many BIPOC workers also have insufficient access to healthcare and other job benefits compared to white workers. Early in the pandemic, a significant number of US workers moved to full time telework. But only 17% of Latinx and 20% of Black workers have positions with teleworking capabilities, compared to 30% of whites and almost 40% of Asian Americans (Gould and Shierholz 2020). Lower wage workers in specific industries, particularly hospitality and leisure, cannot telework, and have a disproportionate number of workers of color.

Workers of color are also less likely to have jobs with paid sick days or health insurance (Gould 2020). Low-wage workers are far less likely to have access to paid sick days or paid family and medical leave. Even though Black workers are more likely to have preexisting health conditions associated with greater risk of COVID-19 mortality, Black workers are 60% more likely to be uninsured than white workers (Scientific American Editors 2020). Roughly 20% of Latino and Native American workers are uninsured. Uninsured workers may delay or forgo medical treatment due to increased costs (Saad 2019). And many of them have likely become uninsured as a result of COVID-19 job losses. Between February and May of 2020, over five million workers became uninsured (Dorn 2020).

The CARES Act focused more on economic relief than protecting the health of essential workers. For example, the CARES Act mandates that insurance providers cover COVID-19 testing, but not treatment (Fehr et al. 2020). It denies some benefits to non-citizens and some of their spouses (Marr et al. 2020). Although Congress also provided temporary paid sick leave for approximately 20% of American workers, it exempted private employers with over 500 employees, thus excluding coverage for many low wage workers (New York Times Editorial Board 2020). There is also no guarantee that insurance providers will provide COVID-19 vaccinations once viable options are available (Wetsman 2020).

To reduce disparities in coverage, one could expand Medicaid, which insures about 75 million low-income Americans, in non-expanded Medicaid states; increasing total federal-state funding of Medicaid; and maintaining enhanced funding during a period of high unemployment (Cross-Call and Broaddus 2020). Congress must also ensure that ACA Marketplace has special or time-limited emergency enrollment periods for people who have recently lost their jobs, even if they were not previously enrolled in health coverage.

14.6 Collective Action

The current movement for racial justice can strengthen collective power and promote workplace change (Morrison 2020). Black and Brown workers have long used collective power as part of the larger racial justice movement. Although traditional labor activism can be effective, BIPOC workers know how systemic racism influences organizing strategies, both at work and in their communities.

Advocates demand not only safer working conditions, but also solutions to broader community problems. Workers can “bargain for the common good,” organizing workers from various industries in order to demand broader social, racial, and economic justice (McCartin 2016). For example, during the 1968 Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), Detroit’s Black activist community organized a 4,000-worker wildcat strike, the first led entirely by Black workers. While DRUM leaders advocated for all workers, they were clear that white workers benefited from greater union representation, higher wages, and cleaner and safer jobs. They also understood that the conflicts in the factory floors were an extension of the larger fight for liberation. DRUM organized outside the traditional union, relying on links within the broader Detroit Black community to advocate for better working conditions and wages for Black workers and the end to racist hiring practices (Kelley 1999).

From early on in the pandemic, warehouse workers, restaurant workers, and farmworkers across the country have protested the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and demanded safer working conditions and increased hazard pay (Lucas 2020; Lerman and Tiku 2020). Many employers only reacted to increase workplace safety after labor activists organized massive strikes and walkouts. As the pandemic continues to ravage low wage and essential workers, national support for unionization is on the rise (Berkon 2020).

Under the National Labor Relations Act, most workers – including workers without union representation – have the right to act together to address-work related issues. 29 U.S.C. \(\S\) 157. Under the NLRA, employers cannot discharge, discipline, or threaten workers for, or coercively question workers about, “protected concerted” activity. A single employee may also engage in protected concerted activity if he or she is acting on the authority of other employees, bringing group complaints to the employer’s attention, trying to induce group action, or seeking to prepare for group action. Unfortunately, many employers resist workers who want to form unions. Workers who lead unionization efforts may suffer retaliation and termination (Campbell 2020). Workers without unions also lack protection, particularly now, when the pandemic has left NLRB regional offices closed and the NLRB slow to process complaints (Opfer 2020).

Nonetheless, BIPOC workers in a variety of industries recognize common goals and a reason to unite in the current crisis (McCartin 2020). With the current movement for racial justice, they can organize together to fight for broader job opportunities and common benefits, such as hazard pay, healthcare coverage and PPE. Collective bargaining ultimately may benefit all workers, strengthen broader movements, and significantly dismantle core economic injustices by forcing those in power to address systemic issues.


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