The Black unemployment gap has been twice that of Whites since the U.S. Department of Labor started reporting jobs statistics in 1972, and the coronavirus crisis has some employment experts worried that chasm may widen even further.
“Before the virus, the 2-to-1 unemployment gap has maintained,” Valerie Wilson, the Economic Policy Institute’s director of the Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy, told The Informer on April 3. “I suspect that the gap won’t get better and I fear that it may even grow.”
On April 3, the Labor Department reported job losses in March of 701,000 nationally, the first net loss in joblessness in years. In contrast, the department reported a gain of 275,000 jobs.
In addition, the last two weeks of March had 10 million first-time unemployment claims, according to the Labor Department. Experts believe that as the states and the District instituted stay-at-home orders, layoffs and furloughs subsequently took place because of shuttered businesses.
On the economic front, Bank of America said on April 3 that it estimates that the nation’s economy will shrink by about $1.3 trillion. The pandemic could cost the country 47 million jobs and send the unemployment rate past 32 percent, according to projections from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
For context, the nation’s highest-ever jobless rate came during the Great Depression, at 25.4 percent.
Before the pandemic began, Wilson noted that the Black unemployment rate hovered around 5.8 percent in February, still substantially higher than the white mark of 3.8 percent, the St. Louis Federal Reserve said.
Wilson said the Black unemployment level will likely increase due to industries experiencing slowdowns that tend to employ African Americans.
“The leisure and hospitality industries have lost a lot of jobs and those industries tend to employ women, especially women of color and they have been hit hard by this crisis,” she said.
A silver lining does exist, Wilson said.
“Health care is in high demand and there are a large number of Black nurses working at health care venues,” she said.
Wilson said large numbers of Black men are employed in the transportation sector that includes companies such as FedEx and UPS, in addition to the public transit area. Their jobs prospects, she said, are tied to how much economic activity takes place during the crisis.
“That’s why the recent economic stimulus bill could potentially help Black workers through its direct payment to people and loans and grants for small businesses that could minimize the effects of the virus,” she said.
Wilson believes that public policies such as the stimulus bill that could help Blacks can play a major role in closing the unemployment gap with whites.
Olubenga Alijilore, a senior economist with the Center for American Progress, agrees.
Aijilore, in an analysis of the Black-white unemployment gap, said “the history of structural racism has created gaps in the labor market outcomes between African American and whites.”
“Due to restrictions within the U.S. labor market, African Americans have been excluded from opportunities for upward mobility, stuck in low-wage occupations that do not offer the protections of labor laws, such as collective bargaining, overtime and minimum wage,” he wrote in the analysis, which was published online Feb. 24.
Aijilore said civil rights legislation, the desegregation of government and the increase in educational attainment among Blacks should have reduced race employment discrimination but that hasn’t happened. Both he and Wilson argue that policymakers should eliminate criminal justice disparities that tend to penalize African Americans, provide opportunities for returning citizens, make workforce development programs more accessible and enforce civil rights laws, and doing those things would help close the racial employment gap.
As far as the present gap, Wilson said she has her concerns.
“The longer this coronavirus economic downturn goes on and ripples, the greater the chance the 2-to-1 gap will increase,” she said. “I will keep my eyes on certain industries that tend to employ Blacks and see how they are faring to get any sense whether the gap is closing.”