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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