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Gig workers fear financial help may come too late
02:26 - Source: CNN

Watch “The Color of Covid,” an hour-long live special hosted by CNN anchor Don Lemon and CNN political commentator Van Jones on Saturday, April 18, at 10 p.m. ET/ PT.
Catherine Powell is a professor of law at Fordham Law School and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

In what I call the “color of Covid,” the pandemic has highlighted a range of underlying inequalities on race – including on the job front – now exacerbated by the health crisis and the emerging stay-at-home economy. Just as Spencer Overton, president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, has rightly demanded that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “end its silence on the racial impact of Covid-19” in terms of health and morbidity, so too must we all reconcile – and address – the fact that the black and Latinx communities and workers are bearing the brunt of the pandemic.

Catherine Powell

While millions of white-collar employees now work remotely from home, jobless claims have once again soared – to a total of 16 million jobs in the last three weeks (6.6 million Americans filing for unemployment in the last week alone) – with people of color particularly hard hit. According to the latest available numbers provided by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the March unemployment rate was highest for blacks at 6.7%. The rate was 6% for Latinxs and the lowest for white Americans at 4%.

The hemorrhaging of jobs is particularly devastating, as this record number of jobless claims eclipses even the number from the most recent recession over two full years.

Meanwhile, “essential” workers largely can’t work from home. They include not only doctors and other frontline health workers, but also blue collar workers, such as grocery cashiers, delivery workers, bus drivers, mail carriers and warehouse workers.

An underexplored dynamic is what New York radio host Brian Lehrer aptly described, during a recent interview with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as a “racial justice paradox:” while “black and brown people are more likely to lose their jobs in the crisis (and suffer food and housing insecurity),” he said “they’re also more likely to be the ones asked to keep their jobs and have risky contact with other people.”

Ocasio-Cortez noted that these frontline workers – disproportionately black and Latinx – are not being treated with the dignity and respect of proper pay and protections, particularly for the risk they assume, demonstrating how “racial and class inequities baked into this crisis.” While 37% of Asian workers and 29.9% of white workers are able to work remotely, only 19.7% of black workers, and 16.2% of Latinx workers, are able to telework, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In short, they must leave their homes and show up for work during a pandemic.

The duality – people of color being overrepresented among both the unemployed and among essential workers – is two sides of the same coin.

On the essential worker side of the coin

One example of the “color of Covid” can be found in the recent actions taken by the e-commerce giant Amazon. Many companies have been forced to cut staff drastically or shut down completely, but Amazon is one that has been expected to benefit from the pandemic. As the company saw an increase in demand in mid-March, it planned to hire an additional 100,000 full-time and part-time positions for its fulfillment centers and delivery network.

Many of these new lower-skilled workers – who are essential to the day-to-day success of Amazon – will likely be people of color because black and brown people continue to be disproportionately represented in lower skilled and lower paid jobs – at the bottom rung, grasping at broken ladders of opportunity.

Last December, Amazon reported that as of December 31, 2019, 26.5% of its US workforce was black and 18.5% was Latinx (compared with 34.7% white) – a far greater percentage of each weighed against their representation in the general US population. At the managerial level, the mismatch is flipped – 59.3% of Amazon’s US managers are white, while a measly 8.3% are black and 8.1% are Latinx. This racial disparity is in part attributable to black and brown workers’ relative lack of the social capital and networks that are stepping stones into the middle class. But these deficiencies themselves are byproducts of America’s long legacy of discrimination and inequality.

Amazon is not alone. The company is simply emblematic of America, as similar race disparities are apparent in the gig economy and beyond. At Uber, for example, black workers make up 9.3% of the company’s total workforce, and only 3.3% of leadership positions. But nearly 60% of its leadership positions are held by white employees, who make up about 45% of its total workforce.

More broadly, research shows that workers in the gig economy are more likely to be non-white compared with their representation in the US working population as a whole: black workers make up 17% of gig workers and Latinx workers 16%.

Close to one-third of Latinx adults, and a little more than one-quarter of black adults, earn an income through the gig economy (compared with just above one-fifth of white adults). Data from the Gig Economy Data Hub, a project by the Aspen Institute Future of Work Initiative and Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School, shows that contract workers, on-call employees, and agency temps – positions that offer lower pay and less flexibility than more traditional gig-economy workers – are more likely to be blacks and Latinx.

This data – and the fact that as the coronavirus continues to spread, many essential blue collar workers lack protective gear, hazard pay, and health benefits – helps explain why we are seeing reports that the virus is wreaking havoc in neighborhoods of color.

Taking matters into their own hands, a group of workers at Amazon and the grocery delivery service Instacart walked off or stayed off the job last week, demanding more pay, better paid leave, and access to disinfectant and protective gear. Whole Foods workers called for a sickout as well, while Pittsburgh’s sanitation employees – most of them black workers – staged a protest to improve working conditions.

While I am black and am able to telecommute, I’m painfully aware that this is far from true for most black and Latinx workers. Relatedly, in recent weeks, NYC subway ridership has dropped by nearly 90% overall, however, for stations in the Bronx – the poorest of the five boroughs – ridership levels have remained the same, according to The New York Times. Indeed, location data that tracks the movement of people by income suggests that poorer people simply do not have the luxury to stay at home and still earn a paycheck.

On the unemployed side of the coin

The color of Covid is also apparent from the job-loss numbers. The data drives home the point that “[w]hen white America catches a cold, black [and brown] America catches pneumonia,” as Steven Brown, of the Urban Institute, told CNN. And as CNN reported, researchers have suggested that blacks and Latinxs are expected to take the hardest economic hit from business closings and job losses. There are also reports that Asian-Americans are being particularly impacted by coronavirus-related unemployment, likely based on job loss in particular sectors or communities in which they tend to be concentrated. According to the Brookings Institution, urban areas – where substantial communities of black and brown people live – have the largest numbers of workers who are in immediate-risk industries.

At the household-worker level, many nannies and housekeepers are also now out of work, given the requirements of social distancing. These types of positions, which are without the same labor protections that other industries have, are mostly held by women of color. Added to this, many domestic workers are undocumented and don’t qualify for federal assistance, such as paid sick leave.

As for essential immigrant workers from Mexico, Covid-19 threatens their jobs – and with it, our food supply. The American food industry is dependent on over 200,000 guest workers annually. These workers will come to the United States on so-called H-2A visas – of which 90% are issued in Mexico, where a number of American consulates have been shuttered – and work in agriculture in states across the country.

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    On a broader level, the racial effects of this crisis teach us many lessons about the importance of having a social safety net – including generous paid family and sick leave for all – as well as affordable health care for all. Fortunately, civil rights groups and the Congressional Black Caucus are discussing policies and solutions that would assist communities of color, as Covid-19 is forcing us to grapple with persistent problems of racial injustice across the board.

    This pandemic has forever colored our understanding of not only the crisis of contagion, but also of the ethics of community, care, and concern. We must not leave anyone behind on this journey.