Covid, Race, and the Revolution

Philadelphia acts to protect hospitality workers, eight ways to reimagine the post-pandemic world, and more, in this week’s Covid, Race, and the Revolution.

Issue No 35. January 6, 2021

Centering Black Workers in Economic Recovery

By James A. Crowder Jr.  

Philadelphia has taken an important step to address racial employment inequities, which have been devastating to workers of color during the pandemic. In response to the coordinated action of workers, residents, and faith leaders, the city council passed the Black Workers Matter Economic Recovery Package in late 2020. The legislation provides employment protections for more than 12,000 hospitality industry workers, including hotel housekeepers and stadium food service workers. It is designed to increase job and economic security for the very workers whom our nation’s labor policies have disempowered over the last 40 years.

A hallmark of the legislation is a “right to recall” for workers who have lost their jobs in the Covid-19 economic crash. This right is critical to finally ending the injustice that we’ve repeatedly seen in this country, where workers of color are the first fired and the last hired. While protections are vital for hospitality workers, who are disproportionately low-income people of color, policymakers should consider more sweeping measures to increase the economic security of workers impacted by Covid, including investments in education and training.

Labor market research following the Great Recession confirmed what many workers of color have been saying for years: workers of color, particularly Black workers, are more likely to be laid off earlier than their White counterparts during an economic downturn, and they struggle much longer to obtain employment when business picks up. This is true even when controlling for education, and it reinforces other racialized labor-market inequities that harm workers of color, even when the nation is not in crisis.

For example, the unemployment rate for Black workers has been roughly double that of White workers since the 1950s, the result of deeply rooted systemic factors such as employment discrimination and inequitable school funding. Similarly, Latinx workers are more likely to experience wage theft than other workers. The increased labor-market volatility caused by the pandemic has only increased the barriers to economic security and mobility facing workers of color, and magnified the pain and vulnerability of their families.

While Baltimore and Oakland have recently adopted similar protections for hospitality industry workers, these safeguards are particularly important in Philadelphia, which has the highest poverty rate among the nation’s largest cities. Researchers and policymakers have attempted to explain the proliferation of poverty in the city in several ways.

For example, researchers at the Pew Charitable Trusts have confirmed that most job growth in the region has occurred outside of the city, while the jobs that have been created within the city limits are concentrated in lower paying sectors and in the lower paying jobs within those sectors. Eight of the 10 fastest-growing jobs held by Philadelphians paid less than $40,000 a year. And when jobs created in Philadelphia do pay family-sustaining wages, they are more likely to be filled by workers from outside the city. Residents outnumbered nonresidents in city-based jobs at all wage levels below $75,000 a year, while suburbanites hold the majority of jobs paying more — even though these workers account for only 35 percent of all people working in the city.

The worker protections achieved in Philadelphia are the result of months of coordinated organizing and action by local workers, residents, and parishioners in key organizations such as POWER and UNITE HERE. These two groups tapped into the collective voice of organized labor and the faith-based community to mobilize support around a prioritized set of concerns. This organized base allowed local elected officials such as Councilmember Helen Gym to engage leaders of the regional tourism and hospitality industry to ultimately support the legislation.

The Black Workers Matter Economic Recovery Package requires employers who have laid off workers due to the pandemic to offer the same jobs back to the workers as businesses reopen. The legislation covers workers in the hospitality industry even if there are contractor changes at the airport or sports stadium, or if a hotel goes into foreclosure or is sold to a new owner.

A city’s Covid recovery strategy should protect workers who are immediately vulnerable, and address longstanding racialized employment disparities. Policymakers should invest in the long-term education, training, and economic mobility of all workers, particularly the low-income people of color who have struggled to access jobs that pay family-sustaining wages. In order to expand economic security and mobility for all, city leaders must start with equity and center the lived experience of residents and incumbent workers. This entails identifying the barriers to the economic security of the most marginalized and then shifting policies and resources to minimize, or eliminate, those barriers.

The Black Workers Matter legislation empowers workers when they need it most. Indeed, since the1970s, economic productivity has grown six times as quickly as compensation for typical workers; the benefits of growth have concentrated at the top of the income ladder and left workers behind. This shift coincides with a reduction in the number of workers in a union, and lower wages for workers without a college degree.

Workforce data demonstrates how focusing on the most marginalized, also known as targeted universalism, can benefit the broader labor force and the economy as a whole. Most of the country is facing a middle-skills gap, meaning there are more jobs available that require education beyond high school, but not a four-year degree, than there are workers trained to fill them. According to the National Skills Coalition, a majority (52 percent) of the jobs in this country require some type of skills training beyond high school, but not a four-year degree. However, only 43 percent of workers are appropriately trained to take advantage of these positions.

Preparedness also varies across racial and gender lines. For example, 33 percent of working-age Latinx men and 29 percent of Latinx women workers lack a high school diploma. As a group, Latinx workers are the least likely to be able to work from home, so they risk exposure to the coronavirus. They're also most likely to have lost their job due to the Covid recession.

While the “right to recall” legislation is a victory for organizers and workers, it’s just a beginning. A comprehensive Covid recovery strategy must offer pathways to jobs that pay all workers family-sustaining wages. It also must address racialized disparities and macroeconomic shifts that have marginalized low-income people of color, caused massive inequality, and hurt the entire nation.
James A. Crowder Jr. is a Senior Associate at PolicyLink.

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

Eight ideas for Covid recovery, solidarity, and change

As the new year begins and vaccines offer hope for ending the pandemic, activists are redoubling their efforts to leverage this historic time and realize the promise of equity. Recent news and commentaries highlight eight ways that leaders, organizers, and communities are reimagining systems, institutions, and our relationships with each other, and forging recovery strategies to address the inequities that Covid has made so clear.

1. Build equitable, sustainable cities

Our neighborhoods have become even more a part of everyday life during the pandemic, and trends such as street closures and community-driven decisions about how to use urban spaces are here to stay, Brooks Rainwater of the National League of Cities writes in Fast Company. These shifts require us to address the affordable housing crisis, and the intersection of housing with access to quality education, job opportunities, health, and food. “Covid-19 has forced us to rethink the way we live, and we need to seize on this appetite for change.” 

Taking on politicians who claim cities are dying, Vox makes the case for large cities in a post-pandemic world. In a New York Times op-ed, journalist Ross Barken calls on the federal government to take a significant but simple step that could launch a new era in affordable housing investment: repeal the Faircloth Amendment, which prohibits any net increase in public-housing units. Repeal is a feature of the Green New Deal and the Homes for All Act.  

2. Guarantee income 

At least 11 cities, from Pittsburgh to Compton, are piloting programs this year that will give some residents direct cash payments, no strings attached, to bolster economic security. Twenty more mayors are considering starting similar experiments in guaranteed income, Bloomberg CityLab reports. The leaders are part of The Mayors for a Guaranteed Income coalition, led by former Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, who launched the first such initiative in a US city. (Check out his October 2019 conversation with Angela Glover Blackwell on the Radical Imagination podcast.) The results of the pilots will be supplemented by experiments around the world, including a program in Maricá, Brazil, that provides monthly payments to tens of thousands of residents below the poverty line.

3. Support entrepreneurs of color

A new, free culinary program in Indianapolis is helping Black and Latinx food entrepreneurs set up virtual — and, hopefully, pandemic-proof — restaurants, the Indianapolis Star reports. The Melon Kitchen Food Entrepreneurship Accelerator will support the delivery-focused food businesses through a “ghost” kitchen, a large facility for preparing food for restaurants that strictly offer take-out and delivery, to online and app-based ordering. It’s part of a larger initiative focused on getting more Black and Brown chefs into the city’s tech ecosystem through startup and entrepreneurship support, and career development.

4. Invest in young adults of color 

Instead of demonizing young people, the nation must value and invest in the multiracial majority coming of age amid the historic calamities of Covid and the labor-market collapse, Angela Glover Blackwell argues in Stanford Social Innovation Review. She calls on policymakers to prioritize education, guarantee youth employment as part of a Federal Jobs Guarantee, decriminalize youth, expand opportunities for youth community service, and build wealth. “There is no better time to lean into the racial reckoning of 2020, and finally repair the harms of historic and continuing racial oppression before they condemn another generation of people of color to suffering, despair, and injustice.”

5.  Stop harming people

When Pennsylvania allowed utility shutoffs to resume in November, the local Debt Collective protested and won a reprieve for households whose incomes fall below 300 percent of the poverty level, or $78,600 a year for a family of four, Truthout reports. The collective kicked off the new year with a protest demanding the cancellation of federal student loan debt, and the group is now working on an eviction tool and eviction defense in advance of the massive wave of evictions expected if the federal moratorium is permitted to expire at the end of this month.

6. Reimagine caregiving

The caregiving crisis burst into public view with school shutdowns, Covid outbreaks in nursing homes, and the exodus of women from the workforce, but the problem has existed for years. So have organizing efforts to build the power of a care workforce made up largely of women of color and immigrants, while expanding access to services and support for children, people with disabilities, and seniors. In The Nation, Ai-jen Poo of Caring Across Generations says the new administration can address the urgency of the moment by building on the successes of advocates and unions, investing in caregiving across the lifespan, and supporting good jobs for the rapidly growing care workforce.

7. Build solidarity

The pandemic gave rise to tens of thousands of mutual aid networks and projects — meal deliveries, sewing squads, childcare collectives, and other ways that neighbors and strangers are joining together, contributing their skills and time, and supporting one another through a crisis made infinitely worse by government failures. Mutual aid has long been a tool for groups ignored, marginalized, and oppressed by officials, as Bloomberg CityLab documents in a visual history. It is a form of political participation, “not through symbolic acts or putting pressure on representatives, but by actually building new social relations that are more survivable,” says trans activist Dean Spade.

8. Make activism a daily practice

How will you show up for equity in 2021? Writer, lawyer, and activist Deepa Iyer calls on all who marched, organized, and voted for justice, equity, and fairness last year to make working for change a daily commitment, not a crisis response. In the Washington Post, she outlines a strategy to align your actions with your values, map your roles in the movement, connect more deeply with your ecosystem, and make meaningful action a regular practice. “Let’s ask ourselves what’s possible if we become social change ambassadors in our everyday lives, and when our ecosystems — be they workplaces, classrooms, networks, or families — meaningfully support our participation.”

Targeted Covid aid hits a snag

In the face of a pandemic that is disproportionately killing Black people and destroying their livelihoods, Oregon earmarked $62 million of its $1.4 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds to provide grants to Black residents, business owners and community organizations enduring pandemic-related hardships. Now the targeted grants are in limbo after several business owners sued the state, claiming the fund discriminated against them, the New York Times reports. If the litigation drags on, Oregon may wind up returning the funds to the federal government. States have to spend the money this year or give it back.

Race and the vaccine rollout

Instead of following federal guidance to prioritize frontline workers for vaccination, Texas, Florida, and other Republican-led states are administering early doses to the elderly, the Washington Post reports. Federal recommendations give the second tier of priority to people 75 and older and frontline workers, such as grocery store employees and bus drivers, who are disproportionately people of color. But some state officials are telling the workers to wait and offering vaccines to a broader, predominately White, swath of seniors.

Native tribes are also prioritizing older people for vaccines and other Covid-related services, Indian Country Today reports. It’s part of a determined effort to protect elders, who are honored links to customs passed through generations. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is prioritizing vaccine distribution to those who speak Dakota and Lakota languages. In Oklahoma, participants and workers in the Cherokee Nation’s elder program are first in line for the coronavirus shots, along with hospital workers and first responders. Next are those whose first language is Cherokee and others considered "tribal treasures” — members who keep Cherokee art and culture alive.

In The Conversation, two professors at the State University of New York, Binghamton, who work in rural health care, describe ways to overcome the barriers to vaccine distribution in rural areas. One solution: allow community pharmacies, particularly independents, to administer the shots. Getting vaccines to rural residents is tough because of the cold-storage and shipping requirements of the two vaccines authorized so far, the shortage of health facilities, and the impact of widespread misinformation minimizing the risk of the virus and exaggerating the dangers of the vaccine. 

Black and Latinx physicians across the country are reaching out to patients and communities of color to overcome vaccine mistrust, the New York Times reports. Black and Brown people have been hit hardest by the coronavirus but express the greatest hesitancy about taking the vaccine, though acceptance is ticking up.

Continuing to educate the public

Stay Covered Together, a national public education campaign created by the Harlem Children’s Zone, aims to drive awareness about the importance of wearing masks to stay safe from Covid and protect one another. The NAACP, StriveTogether, and PolicyLink, along with respected community organizations across the country, are partners in the effort to protect communities most impacted by the devastating effects of the virus — communities challenged by poverty and economic insecurity — by enlisting everyone to play a part. 

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

We hope you find this series an important tool for keeping up with news about the virus and its impact on communities we serve. As a non-profit organization, PolicyLink is honored to provide resources to support the needs of our nation's 100 million economically insecure individuals. Generous partners like you make our work possible. 

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.