A woman waits in line as food is distributed at Seventh-day Adventist Ebenezer Church in Brooklyn, New York on July 22, 2020.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images
Friday’s employment report indicated further signs of a recovery in the US economy. 379,000 net jobs were added and the unemployment rate fell to 6.2%.
Despite encouraging sales numbers, the labor market swoon in 2020 and its recovery in 2021 for the U.S. workforce have not decreased in the same way.
In the early days of the Covid-19 recession, employment data for minority groups, especially women of skin color, was worse than for white workers. The recovery was also sluggish for minorities.
The divergence in the labor market recovery was evident in Friday’s employment report, which showed a decline in the white unemployment rate and an increase in the black unemployment rate.
For white workers, the unemployment rate fell to 5.6% in February, which is below the national rate. However, for black and Hispanic workers, the reported unemployment rate was 9.9% and 8.5%, respectively, higher than the US numbers seen throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
White unemployment peaked at 14.1% in April 2020. Black unemployment peaked at 16.7% in both April and May. Hispanic unemployment peaked at 18.9% in April.
Harder for women
As great as the differences between race and ethnicity are, the unequal effects of the recession are more pronounced in analyzes that include race and gender.
Black and Hispanic women in particular have seen some of the steepest spikes in unemployment and the largest drop in labor force participation since the pandemic began.
Overall employment for black women is 9.7% lower than it was in February 2020 before Covid-19 hit the US, with that number being 8.6% lower for Hispanic women. Employment for white men, white women and black men has decreased by 5%, 5.4% and 5.9%, respectively, since February 2020.
Although the explanations for this trend vary, some economists suggest that occupational segregation – that is, the prevalence of a population group in a given industry – is a likely culprit.
“Those who have been hit the hardest take the longest to recover,” said Kate Bahn, an economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a think tank founded by Democratic political advisor John Podesta. “Once we have long recovered, employment and income levels may not fully recover for years.”
“Women are a bit more represented in some areas such as leisure, hospitality and gastronomy,” added Bahn. “We have also lost health care jobs, particularly low-wage health care jobs that are disproportionately occupied by women of color.”
Economists hope that President Joe Biden’s $ 1.9 trillion stimulus package, expected to be passed in the Senate this weekend, will not only accelerate the overall economic recovery, but also help those who have seen job cuts . The bill includes $ 1,400 stimulus checks, an extension of $ 300 weekly unemployment benefits through September, and $ 350 billion in state aid to local governments.
Janelle Jones, the first black woman to become chief economist, wrote last month that the same trend is evident in the public sector, which has seen steep layoffs at the state and local levels over the past 12 months.
“Losses in local and state government, leisure and hospitality have a disproportionate impact on black women’s employment. Nearly one in four public sector employees is black women,” Jones wrote on a Feb.9 blog. “Half a million black women have left the job market since January 2020.”
The industry-wide breakdown of the job report in February and a surge in restaurant and bar hiring helped add 355,000 jobs to the broader hospitality sector last month. These gains help to make up for the losses incurred over the past 12 months. Leisure and hospitality industries are down 3.5 million jobs or 20% overall compared to February 2020.
Government payrolls lost 86,000 workers last month as layoffs continued in public education
Participation a concern
While high unemployment rates tend to attract attention and may be easier to understand, a significant decline in the number of women either working or looking for work can prove more insidious in the longer term.
The labor force participation rate of black women fell from 63.9% in February 2020 to 59.5% in April 2020, the lowest rate since 1993. The February Employment Report showed that the number had improved slightly since April to 59.7%.
In the past, women who left work to look after their children during a recession often had difficulty returning because they were unable to find a job or receive the same wages in their previous role.
The Covid recession could get worse for women. In contrast to previous economic downturns, the disease has forced thousands of children out of school and back home, where childcare responsibilities continue to be more common with women. And especially with mothers in families who cannot afford childcare.
Historically, black women have done better than black men in the job market, said Kristen Broady, an economics scholar at the Brookings Institution and political director of the think tank’s Hamilton project.
Unemployment rates for black women, who Broady said are more likely to be college educated, tend to be lower than those for black men. However, the uniqueness of the Covid recession and the resulting problems with childcare have had a disproportionate effect on the ability of black women to work.
“In other recessions, the kids were still in school,” said Broady. “If you can’t afford childcare and you’re a single mom, you can’t go to work. And that is more likely to affect black and Hispanic women.”