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Black Americans talk of pain, uncertainty with soaring jobless rates due to COVID-19

“I have a toddler here who's 1, she has breathing problems. ...And my oldest daughter, she was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer years ago. So, I've been out of work since April 20.”
A closed store in Niles, Ill., on May 21. Nam Y. Huh / AP

Victor Patterson, a human resources executive who moved from Chicago to Atlanta, thought his six-month job search had ended, but then the coronavirus pandemic hit.

“I was positioned to receive a job offer in late February/early March,” he said. “As the virus anchored itself in America, the position was postponed or put on hold with projected ‘new’ dates when an offer and hire date would occur. At this point, it has not materialized.”

Patterson, 51, is not alone.

Victor Patterson
Victor Patterson.Courtesy Victor Patterson

More than 43 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits, according to government figures, and African Americans are disproportionately affected by the sudden economic collapse.

There are more people searching for fewer jobs. “The talent pool has increased and this adds another challenge for candidates who were looking prior to COVID-19,” Patterson said, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus.

According to statistics from the Department of Labor on Friday, the jobless rate dropped to 13.3 percent and 2.5 million jobs were added in May. But the unemployment rate for African Americans rose to a staggering 16.8 percent; Hispanic women 19.5 percent. The jobless rate for whites dropped from 14.2 percent to 12.4 percent.

That’s not comforting news for many African Americans.

In suburban Atlanta, two generations of Kanisha Mayweather’s family -- three relatives in total- --work at a distribution center for Carter’s, the seller of baby clothes.

The operation is the size of several football fields, yet Mayweather said she found it hard to maintain a 6-foot social distance.

After some co-workers developed COVID-19, she feared for the safety of her children.

“I have a toddler here who's 1, she has breathing problems,” Mayweather, 30, said. “So I got out of there fast. I called my job and I told them that I could not return because I was terrified for my child. And my oldest daughter, she was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer years ago.

“So I've been out of work since April 20,” she said.

She has family and friends, most of them African American, who have been laid off due to the coronavirus.

For reasons she’s still not exactly sure, the processing of her unemployment claim took weeks. She learned June 1 she’d be getting her first payment this week.

While working, Mayweather said, she was just about breaking even.

Without a paycheck, she has been relying on government prohibitions against utility disconnections, and help from her baby’s father for the rent.

This week’s unemployment payment will help her catch up on last month’s bills and feed her daughters and her 9-year-old-son.

She spent last month “borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, you know, so I'm basically paying everybody back and also trying to catch my bills up.

”It's going to be real tight, especially taking care of three kids.”

Mayweather said her mother, who has diabetes, and her aunt still work at the distribution center.

But she’s not sure when she’ll be comfortable going back.

“I'm really gonna weigh my options,” she said. “I might have to find another job that's safer. Maybe I can find something and work from home.”

Greg Willis lost his job during the 2008 recession. A part-owner of a black-owned cigar line out of Houston, Willis said he worked four jobs for three years to survive. He said many African Americans are now facing a similar crisis.

Greg Willis
Greg Willis.Courtesy Greg Willis

“It was tough because I did not know how to navigate the situation and very few people who looked like me were in positions or even confident enough to help get jobs that would allow me to maintain my standard of living,” he said. “It was not easy. I found a job that paid me well … but I made a vow I would never get caught off guard. So with COVID, I had enough things in the pipeline that it has not devastated me and my family financially.”

Willis advocates for creativity to be able to endure this employment crisis.

“The key to survive for some of us is to get scrappy,” he said. “Set your pride aside, and create your own opportunities. Now is not the time to be fearful; you have to be bold and smart. You must be prepared to reinvent yourself. Take a look at the skills you have developed over the course of your career and determine if you can leverage them for yourself. I suspect you will discover you can if you develop the right mindset.”

Meanwhile -- and troubling still -- is that COVID-19 has prevented person-to-person networking opportunities that can lead to interviews and jobs.

“The traditional networking approach -- breakfast, tea, lunch, etc. — was stopped when stay-in-place orders were implemented,” Patterson said. “As a result, it added a strain to the search as companies worked to adjust operations to a remote environment. This, for a period, left the search process to candidates applying online which, rarely, leads to success for mid-senior-level candidates.”

Dallas resident Senaya Myers graduated in May from Prairie View A&M University, a historically black university in Prairie View, Texas.

Armed with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and two positive virtual job interviews, Myers, 23, thought he had a good shot at a job on the East Coast with Booz Allen Hamilton, an information technology consulting firm based in McLean, Virginia.

Then he got an email.

“The position was eliminated,” he said. “They had a hiring freeze due to the coronavirus. I had a lot of companies say they no longer had the open position due to the coronavirus.”

He said he’s been “applying for jobs constantly,” but noted “it’s hard to get a hold of companies. No one’s at their desk. The most you’ll get is an automated system.”

Myers said he applied for unemployment assistance May 10. The first payment came June 1.

“I’m still facing challenges,” he said. “But it’s better than nothing.”

Texas has been among the states pushing to get businesses back open early following the pandemic-induced lockdown.

“I think it will help,” Myers said optimistically. “It will start slowly going back to normal and people will start hiring again.”

Mary Knatt, who works for an executive search firm, said the elimination of jobs has forced companies to seek candidates who have extensive skill sets.

Mary Knatt
Mary Knatt.Courtesy Mary Knatt

“Companies want executives with a broader perspective and experience to fill multiple roles,” Knatt said. “A VP of operations can be eliminated from consideration if the company can hire a plant manager that has business experience, experience in profits and losses and strategic vision. That person could be elevated at a later time.

“Also, companies who are hiring on a contingency basis, meaning salaries and bonus, etc., would be based on if the business makes a significant comeback.”

Sheryl Williams, an attorney in northern Virginia, says she considers herself fortunate for having a job. But the massive number of African Americans out of work tugs on her emotions.

“It’s not just the pandemic. There has been a cascade of devastating events this year that has pushed us to the brink,” Williams said. “The thing about the jobs that’s so important is that this will not be a quick recovery. The coronavirus is still here. So, we might not have seen the worst of it. What a horrible thought.

“This is all the culmination of an epic failure of leadership on many levels, starting, of course, at the top,” Williams said. “And it’s devastating the African American community and will have long-lasting effects. These bailouts continue to happen, but it seems to be working mostly for big businesses. With this next round, let’s make sure the money gets to the people who need it. And then, are they keeping people on their staff and not sending them to the unemployment line. It’s been a terrible year. And it’s only June.”

Sheryl Williams Shane
Sheryl Williams Shane.Courtesy Sheryl Williams Shane

She said that she talked to her 10-year-old son, Shane, and told him that life could be different for them if she was among the millions whose jobs disintegrated with the onset of the coronavirus.

“I don’t want to imagine it, but to make my point to him, to make sure he is aware of the world we are in, I had to,” she said. “I explained that there are cases at his school where both parents lost their jobs, putting their lives in turmoil. The lesson is to be grateful. I know how blessed I am in the world we are struggling through, especially the African American community. And it’s difficult to accept.”

“And it is our people who are always hardest hit,” Williams said. “Think about it: We are the ones who have to work on the front lines, the essential workers who have to work during COVID-19 and are at risk. And when jobs are cut, it’s us that go first. So, it’s a really troubling time. We’re hit from both sides.”

Karen Robinson-Jacobs contributed to this story