May 2020 Blog – On “Employment”

Posted in: Leader's Blog

Following April’s 400 Years blog about the pandemic disproportionally harming communities of color, let’s acknowledge an historic lack of choice regarding employment for Black Americans. Indentured service and slavery did not allow Black workers any choice in their creation of $14 trillion dollars worth of labor in today’s dollars.

After slavery, Jim Crow segregated workers of color into the least desired and most dangerous work. “Black Codes” prohibited Black people from working outside of farming or domestic help. If they did, they could be fined or forced to work unpaid on plantations.  Labor recruiters were blocked from luring workers into higher paid factory employment in the north, and the American Federation of Labor often refused to admit Black workers.

Historically, when the economy slows, workers of color are the first fired. Federal worker protection laws, like the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, largely excluded domestic, agricultural, and service occupations held disproportionately by Black workers. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission created in 1965 to end job discrimination is chronically underfunded. And today, so-called “right-to-work” laws cripple unions, leaving workers of color with fewer rights. Eight of the ten states with the highest percentage of Black residents have such anti-labor laws.

Now, during these COVID days, Black and Hispanic workers are more likely to get laid off.  In March the percentage of white people who became unemployed rose by 1.1% last month. For Black workers it was 1.6%, 1.7% for Asian Americans, 2.1% for Latinos. 45% of black workers have lost jobs or had their hours cut, compared with 31% for white workers.

Where I live, near Washington, D. C., most postal carriers, bus drivers, and checkout clerks in precarious public spaces are Black workers.  Tulane’s Dr. Keith Ferdinand reports that often it is people of color who have “essential jobs” and yet are not offered early testing or sufficient protective gear.

BuzzFeed’s Kadia Goba points to bus drivers who, despite some precautions, feel great anxiety each time they pull into a crowded bus stop. Using the term “essential workers” does not erase the racial reality.  For Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams “[t]his is coded language.”

Let’s do more for “essential workers” than orchestrate fly-overs of military jets.  Give them paid leave, “hazard pay,” health care, rent relief and adequate personal protective equipment. As we plan for economic recovery, let’s consider wholesale urban revitalization as part of a long overdue reparations project designed to repair the harm done due to racism.

Consider these actions. Do they seem reasonable and/or effective examples of anti-racism activism?

Action #1: Urge policy makers and the general public both to address the historical and contemporary reality for workers of color to be hurt first during economic downturns, and facilitate relief measures by streamlining unemployment application and distribution of aid. Share these works by Jacquline Jones and the Center for American Progress.

Action #2: Rather than focusing only on protecting businesses from lawsuits filed by workers who contract COVID-19 when businesses reopen, demand that businesses do all possible to protect workers, including rigorous physical distancing procedures and proper protective equipment and supplies. See how sanitation workers were treated in Pittsburgh.

Action #3: Patronize businesses owned by people of color (many of which it is reported will not receive any Payroll Protection Plan funds) and support workers demanding adequate safety protection and better wages at Amazon and Whole Foods who are receiving PPP support.


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