June 1, 2020 – A new report by director of EPI’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy Valerie Wilson and senior economist Elise Gould explores how racial and economic inequality have left many black workers with few good options for protecting both their health and economic well-being during the coronavirus pandemic. Persistent racial disparities in health status, access to health care, wealth, employment, wages, housing, income, and poverty all contribute to greater susceptibility to the virus—both economically and physically.
The authors explain there are three main groups of workers in the COVID-19 economy: those who have lost their jobs and face economic insecurity, those who are essential and face health insecurity, and those who are able to continue working from the safety of their homes. Black workers are least likely to be in that last group, with more economic and health security.
As of April, less than half of the adult black population was employed. The black unemployment rate, even in the tightest of labor markets, remains significantly higher than the white unemployment rate. As of the latest data, the black unemployment rate is 16.7%, compared with a white unemployment rate of 14.2%.
While black workers make up about one in nine workers overall, they make up about one in six of all front-line industry workers. They are disproportionately represented in employment in grocery, convenience, and drug stores, public transit, trucking, warehouse, and postal service, health care, and child care and social services. While, in the near-term, this protects them from job loss, it exposes them to greater likelihood of contracting COVID-19 while performing their jobs. Fewer than one in five black workers in the pre-pandemic economy were able to work from home.
“As workers across the country lose their jobs in record numbers, the devastation of those job losses is magnified for black workers and their families,” said Gould. “Furthermore, black workers are more likely to be found on the front lines. They are doing essential work every day, while being at risk of being exposed to the virus. They deserve to be paid adequately, provided personal protective equipment, paid sick days, and health care, a safe workplace, and a union to advocate for them.”
The report explains that black workers are less able to weather such a storm because a long history of racial exclusion, discrimination, and inequality have resulted in fewer earners in their families, lower incomes, and lower liquid wealth than white workers. Overall, white families hold, on average more than five times as much liquid assets as black families do ($49,529 vs. $8,762.) In 2018, median household income for white households was 70% higher than for black households ($70,642 vs. $41,692).
Black Americans’ share of those who have died from COVID-19 nationally is nearly double their share of the U.S. population. They also experience preexisting health conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension, asthma, and diabetes, which are associated with greater risk of death from the coronavirus at higher rates than white Americans. Black workers are also 60% more likely to be uninsured than white workers. This is likely an additional contributing factor to the disparity in chronic illnesses, and it also might result in uninsured workers waiting longer to seek care for suspected coronavirus symptoms.
“The global impact of COVID-19, both in lives lost and economic devastation, is likely to leave a lasting mark for years to come,” said Wilson. “The best path forward requires that the painful lessons learned during this crisis better prepare us for the next one. If we are to avoid the needlessly heavy burden born by African Americans during the next economic or public health crisis, preparation must include plans to address long-standing underlying racial disparities in economic and health outcomes.”
A forthcoming report will highlight conditions for Hispanic workers.
The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank created in 1986 to include the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions. EPI believes every working person deserves a good job with fair pay, affordable health care, and retirement security. www.epi.org