Black Women’s Livelihoods Will Be Yet Another Coronavirus Casualty

For many reasons, Black women are particularly hurt by the virus’s economic toll.

Chandra Thomas Whitfield

Photo by Wendy Ashton via Getty Images

As the saying goes, and history has proven time and again, If White America catches a cold, Black America gets pneumonia.” In 2020, that pneumonia is quite literally the coronavirus. Data confirms that Black Americans are dying from Covid-19 at significantly higher rates than other racial groups, due to longstanding factors such as limited access to healthcare, preexisting health conditions, and overrepresentation in essential” jobs that put Black workers on the frontlines.

Black people are often “the last ones hired and the first ones fired” when the economy takes a hit, and Black women undoubtedly bear the brunt.

While all Americans stand to suffer hardships from the coronavirus in one way or another, Black Americans — and particularly Black women — will likely face a swift and sure economic death from the pandemic, too. For the last eight months, I have talked with Black women around the country for my forthcoming In These Times podcast, In The Gap, about the pay gap experienced by Black women. These conversations have shaped my thoughts and heightened my fears. As I take in the daily dose of news reports on the coronavirus crisis fallout, I can’t help but think of the women who have courageously shared their stories with me thus far.

There’s Hiwot, a barista at a Starbucks in Denver International Airport. She’s employed by a subcontractor that operates many of Starbucks’ airport locations. According to a national survey conducted by the Unite Here, the hospitality union representing some of the airport Starbucks locations run by Hiwot’s employer, Black workers like Hiwot are paid a lower average hourly wage than White workers at many of these locations. After more than a decade with the company, Hiwot makes $15.50 an hour — only $1.50 more, she says, than the starting rate for most new hires. Hiwot counts on tips from Starbucks customers to supplement her wages, but the crisis has slammed the travel industry, turning many airports, including where she works, into ghost towns. 

Before the coronavirus hit, Tam, a veteran hospitality industry worker and single mom to a toddler, had already taken a pay cut of nearly $30,000 to work in the dining department at a university, because it was the only job that aligned with her childcare options. In March, just a week after we spoke, her campus closed indefinitely due to coronavirus and she was laid off. She’s scrambling to find work, but employment options are bleak in the hard-hit hospitality industry.

J, a Walmart worker, does hair on the side to make ends meet for herself, her three children and her elderly dad, who struggles with multiple chronic health issues. Her side hustle has been completely shut down due to self-quarantine and shelter in place” directives. And in regards to the near future, let’s be honest: Laid-off workers probably don’t get their hair done as much as gainfully employed ones do.

And then there’s Brandyn. Before the coronavirus, Brandyn faced pregnancy discrimination from two different employers, and felt she had no choice but to start her own home-based communications company. She joined a growing wave of Black women entrepreneurs, who have been starting small businesses at astronomical rates over the past five years. Now, those start-ups are at risk. Brandyn’s main clients, an event company and a gym, are closed now and she’s been told to expect no new work. Communications is an area that companies often are quick to slash from their budgets at the first hint of an economic downturn. What work she has left, she juggles solo while caring for two young children, ages 2 and 6, at home due to childcare closures; not an easy feat.

As these women’s stories suggest, along with our well-documented elevated risk for contracting and dying from Covid-19, Black women face this crisis with the least economic security of any demographic. We are paid 62 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men, according to a new report from the National Partnership for Women & Families. This adds up to a median wage of $38,036 per year, compared to white, non-Hispanic men’s $61,576. As a result of this and longstanding inequality and discrimination going back to the country’s origins, single Black women aged 36 – 49 had an average net worth of $5 as of 2010, while single white women in the same age group, by comparison, averaged nearly $43,000.

Yet Black women’s earnings often support an entire household. We are the least likely of all demographics to be married (and least likely to marry outside of our race, which means that the longstanding hiring discrimination and pay inequities that persist for Black men adversely impact us, too). By some estimates, about 80 percent of Black mothers are their family’s primary breadwinner.

I am certain that this crisis will disproportionately devastate my Black sisters. As 2008’s Great Recession notably demonstrated, Black people are often the last ones hired and the first ones fired” when the economy takes a hit, and Black women undoubtedly bear the brunt. We’re overrepresented in service-industry sectors like restaurants and hospitality that have been decimated by the coronavirus stay-at-home orders. The resulting trend is already clear. According to a report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Black and brown workers were disproportionately slammed by the 700,000 layoffs last month. Women, too, were harder-hit—meaning that Black women suffered a double blow.

The first stimulus plan fell far short of a real safety net, for Black women or anyone. It didn’t do enough to save the service industry, and by focusing on short-term unemployment benefits over measures to preserve employment, it didn’t stop mass layoffs.

We must demand that the next coronavirus stimulus include important protections for those who need it most. It must put workers and families ahead of corporate interests in various ways, such as incentivizing businesses of all sizes to keep workers on, boosting and extending unemployment insurance for those already laid off, and committing funds to stabilize working families — for example, by strengthening the child and earned income tax credits. Because let’s face it, those $1,200 stimulus checks barely scratch the surface of the great need.

Just as importantly, it should ensure that critical measures like mail-in voting are put in place to ensure that everyone can vote in this unprecedented election year. Based on the way this pandemic has been handled thus far, we must keep in mind that the number one way to ensure that the have-nots, like many of my Black sisters, are not ignored, is to vote out those who demonstrate that they’re not committed to liberty and justice for all.”

Chandra Thomas Whitfield is a 2019-2020 fellow with the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting.
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