COVID-19 & Race: Commentary

This week’s COVID-19 and Race Commentary looks at lingering inequities within the service industry and opportunities for reshaping the sector for equity and collective prosperity, organizing within this Covid-19 era, and more of the latest news about the pandemic's impact on people of color and strategies for an equitable recovery.

Issue No 5. May 13, 2020

Building Power Through Crisis

By Saru Jayaraman

COVID-19 has revealed the deep structural inequities of the service sector and created a tremendous opportunity to organize workers and employers for the change we always needed. There is no going back. We can only go forward together and reimagine an industry in which all thrive.
Before the pandemic, more than 15 million people worked in restaurants across the United States, and many of them relied on tips. There are about six million tipped workers nationwide, working in car washes, nail salons, hair salons, and other businesses in addition to food service. Seventy percent of tipped workers are women, disproportionately women of color. They suffer from three times the poverty rate of the rest of the US workforce, and experience the worst sexual harassment of any workers because they are forced to tolerate inappropriate customer behavior in order to feed their families in tips.
The restaurant industry has argued since emancipation that owners should be able to pay tipped employees a sub-minimum wage. Today that wage is just $2.13 an hour federally, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The sub-minimum wage has resulted in a horrific experience for tipped workers trying to survive the COVID-19 economic shutdown. We estimate that between 4.5 and 9 million restaurant and other tipped workers have already lost their jobs. Most do not qualify for unemployment insurance because their wages are lower than the minimum threshold. In other words, they’re penalized because their employers pay them so little.
Seven states have rejected this legacy of slavery and pay One Fair Wage, a full minimum wage with tips on top to all tipped workers. These states have comparable or higher job growth and tipping averages than states with lower wages for tipped workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and half the rate of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry. One Fair Wage, the organization I lead, has been fighting to ensure the nation follows the leadership of these states.
Organizing in a Pandemic
We launched the One Fair Wage Emergency Fund on March 16 to provide cash relief to low-wage service workers. It has exceeded 160,000 worker applicants in the past month, largely from people of color, single mothers, immigrants, and young people. We have raised over $20 million to aid workers and we’ve built an army of almost 1,000 volunteers. They call each worker to screen for need and offer the opportunity to join the fight for One Fair Wage and register to vote.
Most importantly, we are organizing thousands of workers into large national and state tele-town halls and virtual rallies with Congress members, governors, and state legislators. These events allow workers to raise their voices and demand they receive a fair wage before they go back to work. In this new and challenging moment for the nation, our emergency fund provides a clear pathway for organizing and voter mobilization that engages hard-to-reach populations, and for developing leadership to change the issues that needed to be changed long before the pandemic.
A New Way Forward for the Service Sector
But we aren’t only organizing workers. We are also ensuring that responsible restaurant owners who care about their workers survive the crisis and reshape the sector. Several restaurant owners who previously opposed or were hesitant about our efforts are now willing to commit to One Fair Wage and increased equity. Some now recognize the old business model is not sustainable; others are seizing the opportunity to break free from a model they couldn’t previously see how to change.
We have worked with California’s Governor Newsom and officials in other states and cities to launch High Road Kitchens. Restaurants that voluntarily commit to move to One Fair Wage and greater racial and gender equity would receive public and private dollars to rehire their workers and serve as community kitchens, providing free meals to those who need them.

The pandemic is both the gravest crisis in the service sector’s history and the greatest moment for transformation — for building power among workers and advancing change among employers toward a sustainable future of equity and collective prosperity.
Saru Jayaraman is President of One Fair Wage. To support workers and high-road restaurants, visit

News, Analysis, and Commentary, Curated from Around the Web

Will the push to reopen the economy worsen COVID-19 disparities? Georgia became one of the first states to start reopening on orders from Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, over objections from several mayors, including the Black mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms.The tensions highlight the racial power imbalance at all levels of government and most significantly in state capitals, where governors have wielded extraordinary power under emergency declarations, CNN reports. The nation has no Black governors. Black mayors govern 35 cities with populations of 100,000 or more, or just over 11 percent of big cities. In effect, White leaders are racing to reopen in ways that may increase the already grave burden on people of color, CNN says. “Starkly put, the people at greatest risk from Covid-19 don't look like the people in power.”

The Washington Post reports on a study showing that counties with a disproportionate share of Black residents account for more than half of COVID-19 cases and 60 percent of deaths. Employment status, access to health care, and other socioeconomic factors were better predictors of infection rates than underlying medical conditions. These trends are on stark display in Louisiana, where African Americans account for 58 percent of COVID-19 deaths, though they make up just a third of the population, The New Yorker reports. The fatality rate in New Orleans is twice that of New York City.

Adam Serwer writes in The Atlantic that the coronavirus was an emergency until America’s political and financial elite discovered who was dying. Then it became a mere inconvenience. The pandemic has exposed the bitter terms of our racial contract, which deems certain lives of greater value than others, he writes. His essay echoes the argument by Angela Glover Backwell and Michael McAfee in “Coronavirus and Human Value,” the lead essay in the first issue of this weekly COVID-19 and Race Commentary.

Writing in Medium, Esther Choo says the recent death of 60-year-old Bernard Tyson, Kaiser Permanente’s CEO and a tireless advocate for health equity, highlights an uncomfortable truth: racism is killing Black men. Racial harms cannot necessarily be offset by social or economic success, Choo writes. Black men in the US have a shorter life expectancy than White men by almost five years. “That simple difference encapsulates a whole universe of ‘less.’ ’’ 

To get society up and running safely, widespread testing, large-scale contact tracing, and continued social distancing are critical. How these measures affect communities of color will depend on leadership and fair, equitable implementation. Emerging data on the enforcement of rules like social distancing are troubling. Tensions have flared in Black and Latinx neighborhoods in New York City over selective police enforcement of social-distancing rules, the New York Times reports. On the same warm days that photographs circulated showing officers handing out masks to mostly White visitors at crowded parks in affluent neighborhoods, videos posted online showed Black and Latinx residents getting arrested for social-distancing violations. Of the 40 people arrested for such violations in Brooklyn from March 17 through May 4, 35 were Black, four were Latinx, and one was White.

In Ohio, large, overwhelmingly White crowds have gathered at the capitol, demanding an end to stay-at-home orders, and protesters haven’t faced arrest. Meanwhile, an analysis by ProPublica finds that in three of the state’s largest jurisdictions — Toledo and the counties including Columbus and Cincinnati, Black people were at least four times as likely as White people to be charged with violating stay-at-home orders. In some instances, those arrested were hauled to jails with COVID-19 outbreaks.

On a more positive note, California is leading the way in making sure testing and contact tracing help bridge racial gaps rather than exacerbate them. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced plans to enlist 20,000 workers in the coming months to track down people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus, The Daily Beast reports. The governor says the tracers will receive training in cultural sensitivity and cultural competency and have a wide range of language skills.

New York State, in partnership with a large regional health-care system, is setting up  church-based coronavirus testing in communities of color. Gov. Andrew Curomo announced the novel collaboration with 24 churches after revealing that 20 of the 21 zip codes with the most severe COVID-19 cases have larger-than-average Black or Latinx populations, Newsday reports.

Last week in this space, we wrote about a unique community-led coronavirus screening project, Unidos En Salud, in San Francisco’s Mission District. The project has now released the first, preliminary results: Of nearly 3,000 residents and workers tested for coronavirus infection, 2.1 percent were positive. More than half said they’d experienced no symptoms. Health officials believe that more testing will reveal infection rates to be much higher, and it’s not clear whether the data can be generalized to the city overall. But the project offers a model for authentic resident engagement in the battle against COVID-19.

As the pandemic drags on, the plight worsens for millions of workers who are deemed essential but treated as expendable. Now more of these workers are speaking out. “I don’t like the term essential worker,” John Deranamie, a Liberian man who works in a South Dakota meatpacking plant and contracted COVID-19, tells USA Today. “Essential worker just means you’re on the death track.” 

Sujatha Gidla, a New York City subway conductor who was returning to the job after a bout of COVID-19, agrees. “We are not essential. We are sacrificial,” she writes in the New York Times. “We work at the epicenter of the epicenter, with a rate substantially higher than that of first responders.” Yet in the weeks before she fell ill, subway workers were ordered not to wear masks and she and others had no access to running water to wash their hands.

National Nurses United, the nation’s largest union of registered nurses, staged a protest outside the White House, demanding federal action to increase production of personal protective equipment, set binding workplace safety standards for nurses, and ensure eligibility for workers’ compensation and other benefits, DCist reports. The group laid 88 pairs of white rubber clogs on a walkway in memoriam to the 88 RNs known to have died from COVID-19.

Probably nowhere does the nation’s hypocrisy about essential labor play out more jarringly than in our fields and farms. As Alfredo Corchado writes in the New York Times, America wants it both ways: it wants to be fed and at the same time it demonizes the undocumented immigrants who make that happen. Half to nearly three-quarters of field hands are undocumented, according to various estimates. “In the past, the United States has rewarded immigrant soldiers who fought our wars with a path to citizenship,” writes Corchado, a former farm worker and now a correspondent for the Dallas Morning News. He calls for the legalization of all essential workers.

The heavy Latinx composition of the essential workforce is one reason why the coronavirus is hitting Latinx people with brutal force in certain places, the New York Times reports. In Iowa, Latinx patients account for more than 20 percent of coronavirus cases though they are only 6 percent of the population. In Washington State, they represent 31 percent of cases but 13 percent of the population. In Florida, where Latinx residents are just over 25 percent of the population, they make up at least 40 percent of cases.

COVID-19 disparities are laying bare inequities in the basic infrastructure people need to be healthy and financially secure, including housing and transportation. Although the federal CARES Act banned eviction filings for all federally backed rental units nationwide, more than a quarter of the total, a ProPublica investigation discovered that some building owners are ignoring the law with apparent impunity. In Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas, and Florida, ProPublica unearthed scores of filings to evict tenants. That’s probably only the tip of the problem. There’s no database nationally, or in many cases even statewide, on eviction filings.

Ridership on public transportation has plummeted during the pandemic, sending revenues off the cliff, yet many low-wage workers rely on buses and trains to get to the jobs society is demanding that they do. Transit agencies are facing epic budget shortfalls, and service cuts are inevitable. As decisions are made going forward, equity is more important than ever to ensure that workers and  the most vulnerable residents can safely get where they need to go, write Richard Ezike and Christina Plerhoples Stacy on the Urban Institute blog. They outline steps to ensure an equitable transit response, including keeping and reopening transit lines based on need, not only on ridership levels; engaging low-income and transit-dependent residents in planning; and creating alternatives to buses and trains, such as subsidized ride sharing and bike sharing.

Tamika Butler, a land use and environmental equity advocate, reflects on conversations she’s hearing in the transportation space. “Whether it’s by closing streets or allowing transit to be free — it seems like everywhere I look in the transportation industry, people just want to help,” she writes on Medium. While some people argue for examining how transportation intersects with other basic human needs and inequities, and urge outreach to historically oppressed communities, too many professionals are applying “a savior-minded framework,” she says. “So what should transportation professionals do to change? I’ve said this a million times: start by listening to women of color. We’re often the most impacted, but also the most ignored...Start with first considering that we do know how things work, we have ideas, and we’re here to help.”

The unemployment rate reached a Depression-era level last week, at 14.7 percent. The pain was initially concentrated in the early COVID-19 epicenters (for example, New York and Detroit), in communities where governments acted swiftly to minimize virus spread (the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles), and in some agricultural communities reliant on immigrant labor, including south Texas and the Florida citrus belt, Brookings reports. But shocking losses are piling up everywhere. Nearly 500 tribal casinos remain shut down, throwing people out of work and devastating the fragile finances of Native communities, the New York Times reports.

The New York City comptroller projects that one in five working New Yorkers will lose their jobs by the end of June. The consulting group Dalberg argues that supporting small businesses led by people of color, especially the smallest mom-and-pops, is key to the city’s recovery. Some 220,000 small businesses employ nearly two million New Yorkers, almost half of the city’s workforce. In Queens and the Bronx, almost half of all small businesses are owned by people of color. The loss of these businesses would shatter the livelihoods of their owners and a workforce that’s disproportionately Black and Brown, and destroy the fabric of neighborhoods.

But a national-scale catastrophe demands a national-scale solution. Angela Glover Blackwell and Darrick Hamilton call on Congress to enact a federal job guarantee, a public option for a job with living wages and full benefits on projects that meet long-neglected needs. “This time last year, no one would have predicted that a global pandemic would bring us to the brink of economic collapse,” they write in a New York Times op-ed. “But we can predict with certainty that COVID-19 will not be our last economic shock. A job guarantee can mitigate this harm and usher in a more just and equitable economic future.”

For real-time tracking of the economic fallout on people, businesses, and communities, check out this new tool from Opportunity Insights. It shows, for example, that consumer spending didn’t increase in Georgia in the days after businesses started reopening.

Across the country, incarcerated youth are being released as overcrowded facilities of all sorts — jails, prisons, nursing homes — become petri dishes for the virus. In Illinois, the population confined in juvenile facilities has fallen 30 percent since mid-March, Pew reports. Mississippi is releasing youth who have served at least 90 days in secure placement and is not accepting new admissions. Will steps like these, motivated by health concerns, cause governments to rethink the wisdom and value of locking up youth? Pew points to years of research that say juvenile incarceration generally fails to reduce recidivism and can be counterproductive.

Meanwhile, an ICE detainee in California became the first person in US immigration custody to die of COVID-19, the Washington Post reports. Carlos Escobedo Mejia was hospitalized after developing severe symptoms at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, which has had a severe coronavirus outbreak.

Around the country, acts of solidarity and mutuality offer hope, inspiration, and a positive vision for the post-pandemic future. They must not be drowned out by the steady drumbeat of  bad news. The New Yorker reports on mutual aid efforts spearheaded by organizers on the left, in the prison abolishment movement, and in other radical movements and campaigns. Like the One Fair Wage Emergency Fund, these efforts combine desperately needed relief with civic engagement, political organizing, power building, and radical imagination. 

At the Phat Tue Temple in Riverside, California, Buddhist monks and nuns who typically devote much of their time to meditation and prayer, are busy making 600 face shields a day for frontline health-care workers, the Press-Enterprise reports. And the New York Times reports that in Ireland, hundreds of families are returning an old favor: helping Native Americans fight the virus. More than 170 years ago, the Choctaw Nation sent $170 to starving Irish families during the potato famine. Now Irish families have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to a fundraising drive to supply clean water, food, and health equipment to the hard-hit Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation.

“We need to get the lesson of the coronavirus, which is that we are all connected,” Angela Glover Blackwell says in this Detroit City of Design podcast. “There has never been a more stark example of our mutuality, that what happens in one corner happens to us all to some degree. Some are more exposed than others. Some are more vulnerable than others. But nobody can hide.”

PolicyLink draws from articles, videos, interviews, and other sources across platforms, as well as from our network of equity leaders and activists, to bring you the latest information about COVID-19 and race. We offer this resource to:

  • Provide easy access to information on the dual health and economic crises facing people of color;
  • Put and keep racial equity at the center of our collective understanding of the pandemic and the policies needed for relief and recovery; and
  • Lift up useful data and insights that can fuel equity advocacy and campaigns. 

Please share with your networks and send your ideas and feedback. And follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram. #COVIDandRace

Michael McAfee and Angela Glover Blackwell are grateful for the contributions of Fran Smith, Milly Hawk Daniel, Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Jennifer Pinto, Heather Tamir, Ana Louie, Janet Dickerson, and Mark Jones to produce the COVID-19 & Race commentary.