COVID, Narrowing Black-White Unemployment but Widening Deaths

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COVID-19 is a strange bedfellow. When it comes to black to white unemployment, it is narrowing the gap. But when it comes to black-white death, it is in overdrive.

Today’s Labor Department report showed 3 million additional workers filed new claims for unemployment compensation.  Now, total COVID related unemployment is 36 million workers. Each week for the last month, the economy has shed 3.6 million jobs. The four weeks before that, it lost about 4.1 million jobs a week. This is a startling number. It means the total number of COVID related and non-COVID related unemployed workers number 40 million, which puts the real unemployment rate at 25%. That is equal to the steepest rate of the Great Depression.

The Labor Department’s latest report puts overall unemployment at 14.7% and white unemployment at 14.2%. Typically, the black unemployment rate is about twice that of whites. For example, in February, before the COVID shutdown, white unemployment was 3.1%. However, black unemployment was 5.8%, or 1.9 times higher than whites. By April, the COVID shutdown drove the white unemployment up to 14.2%. At the same time, black unemployment reached 16.7%, but this was just 1.2 times larger than whites.

Ordinarily, the narrowing ratio would be a reason for optimism. But paradoxically, it has narrowed because blacks are employed more heavily in essential service occupations – the same ones that have a higher exposure to COVID related infections and death.

The occupational distribution of blacks indicates they are more likely than other workers to be employed in office and administrative support jobs, such as office clerks, customer service reps, fire, police, ambulance services, postal services, etc. Blacks are also twice as likely to be employed in healthcare support occupations. They are also more heavily concentrated in transportation and material moving occupations.

While these occupations have shed workers, the negative impact of COVID is more muted because the workers provide essential services during the lockdown. For example, virtually every industry in the country lost significant numbers of workers except courier and messenger services and postal services – industries where blacks are concentrated more heavily.

Unfortunately, the employment impact is a double-edged sword. That is because COVID is causing the death rate among blacks to be astoundingly high. Data on the demographic characteristics of coronavirus victims are just now being collected.  But among the information we have, it is known that 33.2% of the deaths that have occurred in New York City were among African-Americans. Further, a recent study by the Foundation for AIDS Research indicated that counties across the country where blacks are heavily concentrated make up 52% of the coronavirus cases and account for 58% of the deaths from COVID – 19. Finally, a recent CNN poll found that 54% of Blacks knew someone who has been diagnosed with coronavirus, while this was true for only 40% of whites.

The President is pushing full tilt to reopen the economy – even though there is no comprehensive federal testing strategy or plan. Undoubtedly, this will lead to more jobs and more deaths. Black workers and all workers whose occupations put them at higher risk must exercise more precautions by always wearing masks, sanitizing hands frequently, and maintaining social distance. These things are not an option; they are a must! COVID will not stop ravaging communities just because people have cabin fever, and the President wants the economy open. Each worker must continue to assume that everyone contacted has COVID and act accordingly. Finally, if you are blessed to have avoided being an unemployment statistic, be smart, do not be a COVID statistic. Your fate is in your hands.

Photo by Clarke Sanders on Unsplash

Last modified: May 15, 2020

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