Before George Floyd was killed in police custody and protests wracked the country, he had been laid off from his security job at a Minneapolis restaurant. He was just one of the millions of workers of color most likely to lose their job in the pandemic, recent labor market data shows.
As the nationwide shutdowns gradually lift and economic activity returns, the latest employment figures show that while the virus is colorblind, its effects are anything but indiscriminate.
Black unemployment rose to 16.8 percent in the monthly employment snapshot released Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While that number is slightly up from 16.7 last month, white unemployment came in at 12.4 percent, down from 14.9 percent.
“We have a deep divide in our society. There’s a lot of racial and social injustice,” said Vladimir Clairjeune, 32, an American-born son of Haitian immigrants. He was laid off as a passenger service representative at New York City's JFK Airport in April. “The pandemic just created a domino effect.”
Layoffs related to the coronavirus pandemic have hit low-wage earners in jobs that require interacting with customers or can’t be done remotely the hardest. These are positions that are more likely to be held by workers of color, according to Department of Labor data, and include retail, leisure and hospitality, temporary employment, doctor’s offices, receptionists and food services.
“A CEO can work from home and cancel the contract for a building,” said Yenny Hernandez, 38, whose family is from the Dominican Republic. She was furloughed from her job cleaning a commercial building in New York City in March.
Minority employment is also less likely to bounce back as restrictions ease, said Daniel Alpert, a managing partner at Westwood Capital and a senior fellow in Financial Macroeconomics at Cornell Law School, creating a stark disconnect. He estimates that as restrictions lift, around 8 to 12 million jobs will not return, with losses largely in the leisure, hospitality and retail sectors.
The pandemic’s racially disparate impact on the job market has laid bare decades of failing government policies.
As of April, less than half of all working-age black Americans are active in the labor force, an employment-to-population ratio that is “massively alarming,” Alpert told NBC News. More than half of all white working-age Americans have a job.
Part of the reason why blacks and minorities tend to occupy a higher share of the more vulnerable positions is discrimination, Alpert said. "Most of it is inequivalent opportunity and inability to reach higher on the ladder in terms of higher-paying jobs."
"We have an underclass dependent on increasing number of low-wage page jobs and at the same time the lowest investment by manufacturers in plants and equipment which would produce higher paying jobs," he said, adding that America has created industries that don't require particular skills but where "people are willing to work."
That gap between black and white unemployment would be even larger if it weren't for the fact that minorities are also more likely to occupy jobs deemed essential, such as grocery stores, public transit, trucking, the postal service, health care and child care, according to Census data.
“My rent is due right now,” said JaToya Chevalier of Louisiana, who had been collecting unemployment after being laid off last year from her assistant manager job at a Family Dollar store. She has unsuccessfully sought work since. “No one is hiring.”
Chevalier, a single mother of two, said she was eligible for extended relief but after one week's payment, the state unemployment website wouldn't let her file and said her claim had "underlying issues," without further explanation, a complaint echoed by dozens in an online Facebook group set up by a local law firm.
“You can’t contact these people. They’re not answering the phones. They’re playing games with our families' lives,” she said. After NBC News contacted the Louisiana Workforce Commission, Chevalier's error message was gone from her online dashboard and she was again able to file for benefits. A spokesperson for the commission said the call center was experiencing "overwhelming volumes."
The pandemic’s racially disparate impact on the job market has laid bare decades of failing government policies, from Jim Crow-era laws to redlining to a G.I. Bill that was interpreted by administrators to benefit mainly white families, by giving them a leg up on home buying and college tuition.
Even recent government assistance plans such as the Paycheck Protection Program can leave blacks and minorities at a disadvantage because of persistent underlying inequality.
And economic inequality can drive social unrest.
In 1967, when President Lyndon B. Johnson established the Kerner Commission to look into the root cause of the era’s race riots, social scientists and data analysts found flawed policing and criminal justice practices, exploitative consumer credit, unemployment, lack of housing, and other forms of racial discrimination as primary drivers of the violent upheaval.
“The recommendations made back then for rigorous and significant efforts to increase investments in jobs and resources in predominantly African American communities, those proposals were never acted on,” said Valerie Wilson, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.
“When we don’t make a targeted and concerted effort to address racial inequality," the issues raised don’t go away, since they stem from "centuries of policies in this country that result in the exclusion and exploitation of black people," Wilson said.