LGBTQ people face higher unemployment amid coronavirus pandemic, survey finds

Seventeen percent of LGBTQ people polled lost their jobs because of COVID-19, compared to 13 percent of the general population, a survey found.
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A person files an application for unemployment benefits on April 16, 2020, in Arlington, Va.Olivier Douliery / AFP via Getty Images file
By Julie Moreau

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Americans are more likely to become unemployed as a result of the coronavirus epidemic than their non-LGBTQ counterparts, according to a poll by the national LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign and PSB Research.

"It is unfortunate, but not surprising, to see how COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting vulnerable populations, including the LGBTQ community,” Elizabeth Bibi, the campaign’s senior communications adviser, told NBC News. “Understanding the impact this virus is having on our community is crucial so that we can be best prepared to weather this crisis and work together on how to recover."

The report, based on 4,000 participants polled from April 16 to May 6, found that 17 percent of LGBTQ people had lost their jobs because of COVID-19, compared to 13 percent of the general population. LGBTQ people of color were disproportionately affected: Twenty-two percent of them reported losing their job because of the pandemic, compared to 14 percent of white LGBTQ people surveyed. The report also found 42 percent of LGBTQ people said their financial situation was “somewhat or much worse off now than one year ago,” compared to 36 percent of non-LGBTQ people.

The Human Rights Campaign released its data on Friday, the same day the federal government released its latest unemployment statistics, which found that the U.S. economy lost 20.5 million jobsin April and the unemployment rate had soared to a staggering 14.7 percent.

The organization’s new data builds upon its previous research demonstrating the LGBTQ community’s economic vulnerability.

“Our early analysis showed why LGBTQ people were more likely to be impacted by the virus: We work in industries, like the service industry, that are more likely to be impacted by the pandemic and are less likely to have health insurance or access to medical care when needed,” Bibi said.

A survey found that nearly 1 in 3 LGBTQ respondents had their work hours reduced, compared to about 1 in 5 in the general population. The findings also showed LGBTQ people were cutting back on spending at higher rates: Nearly 60 percent said they were now spending less, compared to just over 50 percent of the general public, and 42 percent of LGBTQ people reported making adjustments to their household budgets, versus 30 percent of the general population. Additionally, 11 percent of LGBTQ respondents reported requesting rent delays, compared to 8 percent of the general population.

While the campaign’s latest surveys did not inquire about paid sick leave, the organization’s 2018 Paid Leave Survey found only 29 percent of LGBTQ respondents reported having access to paid medical leave if they or a family member were to get sick. An estimated 76 percent of all U.S. civilian workers have access to paid leave, according to the Pew Research Center, though this varies significantly by industry.

The survey is among several recent reports that suggest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people are being disproportionately affected by the economic crisis.

“We know LGBTQ people face higher rates of economic instability, higher poverty, lower rates of employment and higher incidence of pre-existing conditions,” Sharita Gruberg, director of policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, told NBC News. “You can make a pretty reliable assumption that LGBTQ people are facing serious economic consequences from the pandemic.”

The Center for American Progress released a report last week that suggested LGBTQ people are among those “being hit harder by the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.” Using data from the government’s Current Population Survey, the organization found that from 2014 to 2019, same-sex couples experienced higher rates of unemployment compared to other Americans. This means that even during periods of economic recovery, gay couples are less able to bounce back.

“While we do not yet have data on the impact the current economic crisis caused by COVID-19 is having on same-sex couples, if history is any indication, they will be disproportionately harmed by this crisis and will experience a longer recovery,” the report states.

Existing economic vulnerabilities

The public health crisis is exacerbating existing economic inequalities. Even in good economic times, most LGBTQ people still earn less than their non-LGBTQ counterparts, though this varies by gender identity and sexual orientation.

“The bulk of the evidence is that gay men earn less than heterosexual men whereas lesbians earn more than similarly skilled heterosexual women,” Christopher Carpenter, professor of economics at Vanderbilt University, told NBC News.

“Bisexual people earn less. They always do worse,” he said, adding that researchers are not sure why.

Carpenter’s research on employment also shows that transgender people experience much lower employment rates and incomes than cisgender Americans. “Trans folks are at increased risk of poverty,” he said.

A study released last year by UCLA’s Williams Institute found nearly 30 percent of transgender people and bisexual women live in poverty, while gay men and lesbians have similar poverty rates — 12 percent and 18 percent, respectively — to their straight counterparts.

A 2018 report from the Center for American Progress found LGBTQ people are more likely to rely on federal assistance programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“With the economic crisis, I am really concerned about the increasing need for food assistance for LGBTQ people,” Gruberg said. “It’s not a special thing that LGBTQ need; we just know that LGBTQ people tend to be left out.”

Discrimination and LGBTQ workers’ rights

Gruberg and Carpenter agree that part of the economic disparity between LGBTQ individuals and households and everyone else may be the result of employment discrimination. A 2017 Harvard study found that more than 1 in 5 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans reported experiencing employment-related discrimination.

“This crisis definitely highlights how vulnerable LGBTQ people are and how critical comprehensive nondiscrimination protections are,” Gruberg said. “The idea that LGBTQ people could be more vulnerable simply because of who they are is unacceptable. It was already imperative that we enact these protections, and this crisis has laid bare how critical it is.”

Currently, there is no federal nondiscrimination law protecting LGBTQ workers. While many states have passed state-level protections, 28 states do not have explicit legal protections for all LGBTQ employees, according to the Movement Advancement Project, an independent think tank.

“Queer folks are in precarious employment positions because of the lack of federal protections,” Carpenter said. “In any time of crisis, you worry that the first to be fired are those folks for whom there is no legal recourse to get their jobs back.”

Last May, the House passed the Equality Act, which would modify existing civil rights legislation to ban discrimination against LGBTQ people in employment, housing, public accommodations, jury service, education, federal programs and credit. The bill has stalled in the Senate.

The Supreme Court is set to return a ruling on three cases that go to the heart of LGBTQ workers’ rights. At stake is whether sex discrimination, covered by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, also prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

‘We don’t know what we don’t know’

The unemployment data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, including Friday’s monthly jobs report, does not include information on sexual orientation or gender identity. This lack of government data hampers researchers’ ability to draw definitive conclusions about the LGBTQ economic picture.

“Without federal, state and municipal data collection efforts, nonprofits and advocacy groups are having to step in and do this data collection on their own and having to cover the costs,” said Ty Cobb, senior director of research and strategic initiatives at the Human Rights Coalition.

He said the campaign’s two latest surveys can provide a “glimpse” into the economic issues facing LGBTQ people but encouraged federal, state and local governments to ask questions about sexual orientation and gender identity in their data collection efforts.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Carpenter said, echoing Cobb. “Everything we know about economic outcomes and wages of queer people is cobbled together from other surveys.”

Major demographic surveys, such as the 2020 census, do not include questions about the sexual orientation and gender identity of individuals, leaving large gaps in public knowledge about LGBTQ people. Carpenter said this lack of available data could have a far-reaching impact, and he even cited the upcoming Supreme Court decision on Title VII as an example.

“Nine people will make a very consequential decision, and they are doing so without direct evidence from our federal surveys,” he said. “That should give everyone cause for concern.”

Advocacy groups and academics have long called for LGBTQ people to be included in government data collection. The pandemic has reignited these calls and has also recently led to some lawmakers — including California state Sen. Scott Wiener and New Jersey Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle — to call on their states to collect data on LGBTQ patients amid the pandemic.

“We know that COVID-19 is harming the LGBTQ community, but because no data is being collected, we’re hamstrung in making the case to devote attention and resources,” Wiener said in a statement announcing the introduction of an LGBTQ COVID-19 data collection bill. “The history of the LGBTQ community is a history of fighting against invisibility. Without data, we quickly become an invisible community and risk being erased.”

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