By Jamie Koenig & Eric Halvorson
Long before coronavirus, structural racism was causing widespread death, devastation, and suffering across the United States. In the city of Chicago, residents in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Englewood could expect to die at around 60, while the mostly white residents of Streeterville could expect to live until about 90 years old. These racial inequities are the result of white supremacy and longstanding structural racism embedded in policies at every level of our government and society.
Now the pandemic of racism has a new partner in COVID-19. Reporting by WBEZ Chicago shows that Black Chicagoans are dying at significantly higher rates. Meanwhile, analysis by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) shows that the essential workers in healthcare, transportation, grocery stores and other frontline jobs are disproportionately people of color. White workers, on the other hand, are more likely to be able to work from home.
Locally-focused analysis from the CEPR found that people of color are over-represented in frontline industries within Chicago. Black Chicagoans constitute 23.7% of all workers but are 35.7% of all frontline workers. While Latinx Chicagoans are not over-represented in frontline industries as a whole, they are disproportionately represented within traditionally low-paid frontline jobs like in grocery stores, warehousing, cleaning services, and child care. Women are also over-represented in frontline jobs, holding 48.5% of all Chicago jobs but 63.4% of frontline jobs.
We wanted to understand this data in more detail. Within these industries, we push Black and Latinx workers into the lowest-paying jobs with the fewest benefits or protections. We at the Chicago Jobs Council decided to dig deeper with these data by narrowing CEPR’s analysis to just individuals making 200% of the Federal Poverty Line. In our analysis, we found that Black individuals are even more over-represented among Chicago frontline workers. Black folks make up about 45% of all low-income workers, but among low-income workers in frontline jobs, they make up almost 56% of workers. This trend continues statewide, but with less dramatic gaps.
OSHA, the agency charged with ensuring workplace safety at the national level, is not doing its part to protect these workers. 72% of COVID-19-related complaints have come from non-healthcare workers but OSHA isn’t directly addressing any complaints from non-healthcare workers. Protections for these workers have been rolled back in the last few weeks and months, following a dismantling of broad pandemic protections developed under previous administrations. Here in Illinois, the Office of the Attorney General has tried to step up to address the flood of frontline worker safety complaints, more than quadrupling its staff in its bureau of worker rights, but it remains unable to sufficiently address widespread threats to frontline worker health and safety.
On top of higher risk of exposure in the workplace, people of color face additional transportation risks, being more likely to rely on public transportation, where physical distancing is challenging, or have their driver’s license suspended if they have a vehicle that hasn’t been towed. Despite these higher risks of exposure at work and in transit, testing has been less available for these communities.
The increased exposure risk and insufficient safety protection that workers of color disproportionately face in frontline jobs are critical factors driving the health disparities we are seeing in all the COVID-19 numbers.
Beyond the immediate health crisis, the lasting economic harm from COVID-19 will also hit hardest and last longest in communities of color, who have long faced disparately high rates of unemployment due to racist policy decisions and discrimination in the labor market. At the end of 2019, Black unemployment in Illinois was more than double white unemployment (White: 3.1%, Black: 7.9%). Even back during our nation’s worst economic crisis, the Great Depression, national unemployment peaked at about 24% – but young Black men in Chicago have been dealing with worse for years: as high as 45% of Chicago’s young black men were out of school and jobless, per a one Chicago Sun-Times article from about a year ago.
Now, overall unemployment in Illinois has soared to unprecedented levels — the 4 week average number of claims is up 1735%. National-level data shows that workers of color are losing income at higher rates; “Of nonwhites, 60% said they or someone in their household has lost hours or a job, compared with 43% of whites.” And if someone is trying to find a job in the middle of this new pandemic, you can probably guess where the openings are: low-paid, frontline jobs such as warehouse workers, delivery workers, pizza chain workers, large food retailers, and other major national employers. We know this because it’s what our members at workforce development organizations across the region are dealing with. They’re attempting to balance two opposing interests: their clients’ need for income and their need for safety and social distancing.
Our policy and programmatic responses to the virus must reckon with these longstanding racial disparities.
Some of what we need will be the same things our communities have been demanding for years: Invest in workforce development, apprenticeships, career and technical education, and target these opportunities to communities who need them most. Provide universal access to living wages, childcare, paid family and medical leave, and equal pay for equal work. Equitably fund K-12 education and make higher education affordable to everyone. End mass incarceration (a threat to public health itself, among other things) and provide real support for training and re-entry. End homelessness by ensuring people are housed. Pass the Fair Tax so that the top 2% of earners in Illinoisans pay their fair share. End driver’s license suspension for failure to pay or failure to appear in court, and stop filling public coffers using tickets, fines, and fees that land hardest on low-income people of color. Strengthen the safety net and eliminate work requirements and red tape.
Some of what we need will be new or adapted, based on how the shock-waves from this health and economic disaster show up in peoples’ lives. One thing is certain: we must listen to the voices of the low-income workers of color who are experts in their own lives. We must listen to research and scientists. And we must keep vigilant for the ways that racist structures continue to hurt us and our neighbors.
Below is a sample of what the Jobs Council has been reading, watching, and listening to on this topic up till now. We encourage you to read, reflect, and incorporate what you learn into your response efforts and outlook.
They fall into the following categories:
- Frontline Workers’ Voices
- Racial Makeup of Frontline Workers and Racial Disparity
- The Response of OSHA
- Who Can Telework
- Gender Gaps
- Access to Transportation
Note: In the brief description of the articles below, we try to generally use the same ethnic and racial labels that are used in that specific piece. As such, you’ll see alternating use of Black, African American, and other labels.
Frontline Workers’ Voices
- Calling Me a Hero Only Makes You Feel Better by Karleigh Frisbie Brogan in The Atlantic
It’s great that there’s public appreciation for grocery store workers, but lip service is not enough. These workers continue to work because they have no other choice. This is a compelling and thought-provoking piece on how we need to back up our words with actions both now and when the pandemic has passed.
- ‘I Can’t Stay at Home’ video from The Atlantic
This 6 minute documentary follows a worker at a grocery store in Manhattan, hearing about the experience of workers at Zabar’s Grocery Store.
- Job Quality in Practice Webinar: Worker Organizations Respond to the COVID-19 Crisis from the Aspen Institute
This webinar offers a discussion between workforce development professionals and their perspectives of what’s happening on the ground today.
Racial Makeup of Frontline Workers and Racial Disparity
- In Chicago, 70% of COVID-19 Deaths are Black by Elliot Ramos and María Inés Zamudio for WBEZ Chicago
Black Chicagoans are dying at disproportionately higher rates. Historical factors such as environmental pollution, segregation, and limited access to medical care have targeted these communities and made them more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
- Chicago’s coronavirus disparity: Black Chicagoans are dying at nearly six times the rate of white residents, data show by Cecilia Reyes, Nausheen Husain, Christy Gutowski, Stacy St. Clair, and Gregory Pratt from the Chicago Tribune
Up to April 7, 2020, 68% of Chicago’s deaths have been African American despite being only 30% of the city’s population. The hardest hit communities on the South and West sides have struggled with unemployment and health care access for decades, which is reflected in the existing life expectancy gaps across Chicago. This same pattern has been seen among black residents in other midwest cities, like Milwaukee and Detroit.
- How Many Chicago Latinos Have Died From COVID-19? There Are No Up-To-Date Numbers by María Inés Zamudio for WBEZ Chicago
Zamudio discusses the lack of reliable data for estimating the impact of the coronavirus for Latinx communities. While demographic information might ultimately come out to answer this question, we’re currently operating without knowing the actual extent of the impact. Given the high proportion of frontline workers in this community and the high rates of preexisting conditions like diabetes, this needs to be corrected.
- The Black Plague by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor for The New Yorker
Taylor covers the many racial and class inequalities that lead to the coronavirus causing disproportionate harm for African-American communities. Included among this are the lesser access to healthcare that has led to greater risk of diabetes and high blood pressure and the poorer quality of care for African-Americans who see doctors due to implicit preference for white patients, misbeliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites, and algorithms that perpetuate racist standards of care.
- Two black men say they were kicked out of Walmart for wearing protective masks. Others worry it will happen to them by Tracy Jan and For some black Americans, anxiety about wearing face coverings in public may keep them from doing so by Eugene Scott for the Washington Post
Many people of color, particularly black men, are nervous to follow CDC guidelines around wearing a face mask because of racial profiling and potential association with violent gangs. In Rockford, IL, a police officer escorted two men wearing surgical masks out of Walmart.
- African Americans Face Systematic Obstacles to Getting Good Jobs by Christian E. Weller for the Center for American Progress
Even before the economic decline resulting from COVID-19, Black Americans faced higher rates of unemployment and had greater obstacles to jobs. In December 2019, when the economy had enjoyed over 100 months of growth, the African American community had higher rates of unemployment and Black women faced the most difficulties. Weller provides an overview of recent economic indicators to illustrate the fact that Black Americans are “last hired, first fired.”
- Black-Owned Businesses Could Face Hurdles in Federal Aid Program by Emily Flitter for the New York Times
Banks disbursing funds through the federal government’s $349 billion relief package for small businesses only want to work with businesses they’ve already made loans to. This has unfairly disadvantaged black business-owners because minority business owners have historically struggled to get loans due to racial discrimination and other race-based obstacles. Flitter provides information on these obstacles as well as efforts to get some relief funds reserved for minority-owned businesses.
- Asian American Discrimination And The Coronavirus Crisis from WBUR Boston
This insightful interview with actor and activist George Takei, immigration and Asian American historian Erika Lee, and writer Cathy Park Hong explores the history of Asian discrimination in the US and its current resurgence. They also discuss the invisible marginalization of Asian Americans in the garment and service industries. At the end, there’s also a great list of more suggested readings.
- Job Losses Higher Among People of Color During Coronavirus Pandemic by Danielle Kurtzleben from NPR
This article provides an overview of the greater impact on unemployment rate for people of color. In addition to providing a good summary of recent data findings, it presents profiles of some of the workers affected.
- Toughest jobs for keeping your (social) distance by Megan Cerullo for CBS News
This is a great resource for understanding the social distancing possible in various jobs and the levels of employment in it. It additionally speaks with people about how they’re rethinking their jobs to increase how much distance can be maintained.
- A Basic Demographic Profile of Workers in Frontline Industries by Hye Jin Rho, Hayley Brown, and Shawn Fremstad for the Center for Economic and Policy Research
This analysis of frontline worker demographics looks at race/ethnicity, gender, education, compensation & benefits, family responsibilities, hours, and other factors to provide a clear picture of how different groups are disproportionately impacted. They additionally have their data broken down by state for download to allow for further analysis.
The Response from OSHA
- Millions of Essential Workers are Being Left Out of COVID-19 Workplace Safety Protections, Thanks to OSHA by Michael Grabell, Bernice Yeung, and Maryam Jameel for ProPublica
OSHA is receiving large numbers of complaints related to COVID-19 but has actively neglected the protection of non-healthcare frontline workers. Protections for non-medical essential workers are being rolled back and OSHA isn’t involved in the coronavirus taskforce. COVID-19 complaints are regularly not being inspected. OSHA does not have an enforceable regulation based on airborne infectious diseases. While such a regulation was being drafted during the Obama administration, it was put aside when Trump took office.
Who Can Telework
- Most Brown and Black Americans Are Exposing Themselves to Coronavirus for a Paycheck by Chris Moody for Vice News
Less than 30% of American have jobs that can be done remotely – more than 100 million workers have to be present to work. The ability to telework is a privilege that is disproportionately enjoyed by white and Asian workers. Only 16.2% of Hispanic workers and 19.7% of black workers can telework, compared to 30% and 37% for white and Asian Americans respectively.
- Not everybody can work from home by Elise Gould and Heidi Shierholz for the Economic Policy Institute
The Economic Policy Institute provides a thorough overview of the disparities in those able to work remotely. In addition to breakdowns by race, industry, and income, Gould and Shierholz observe that only 34.9% of parents can telework, making their jobs, health, and care for their children vulnerable.
- Applying a racial equity lens to digital literacy from the National Skills Coalition
This short report from the National Skills Coalition provides an overview of the digital skills divide, outlining the digital skills needs of different racial groups and how people of color tend to have less proficiency in digital skills. It additionally provides some policy ideas for closing this divide.
- How Millions of Women Became the Most Essential Workers in America by Campbell Robertson and Robert Gebeloff from the NYTimes
A majority of people still working in frontline industries are women and many of these are making less than $30,000 a year. Home health and personal care aides are some the fast growing jobs in the US and over 80% of these are women. These workers are essential for the effective care of many of our most vulnerable citizens and PPE is in even shorter supply for them, versus other medical professions.
- Black women are the hardest hit by the coronavirus unemployment crisis, new survey data shows by Marguerite Ward for Business Insider
Ward explores survey results that indicate that black women are most likely to be laid off or furloughed during this public health crisis. They are further more likely to be struggling to pay rent and for other basic necessities. Black women are particularly vulnerable due to the racism and sexism that has funneled them in the service industry while receiving significantly less pay.
- Coronavirus isn’t transphobic. But America’s economic and health systems are. by Katelyn Burns from Vox
Burns highlights the increased precariousness faced by transgender Americans, who already dealt with high rates of poverty, unemployment, workplace descrimination, homelesses, and lack of accessible healthcare. Now the pandemic is magnifying every one of those factors.
Access to Transportation
- Transit Has Been Battered by Coronavirus. What’s Ahead May Be Worse by Emily Badger for the New York Times
Public transit ridership has understandably plummeted and schedules have been cut. Public transit revenue is falling due to reduced fare revenue and likely will from reduced tax allocations. This complicates life in the present for many essential workers and the long-term harms for public transit could continue to affect workers reliant on public transit for years to come.