Uneven opportunity: Safe and available employment during a pandemic

Even as businesses and workplaces cautiously re-open, Health Forward is acutely aware that among low-income individuals and people of color, employment opportunities, working conditions, and benefits vary dramatically. 

Addressing these disparities is essential, as is advocating for policies that advance economic inclusion and health equity.

Unemployment disparities

We all know that too many people are out of work. But lower-wage workers are affected more severely by pandemic-era unemployment. 

According to a recently published Federal Reserve report, 20 percent of people nationwide who had been employed in February 2020 lost a job or were furloughed in March or early April. In comparison, looking just at those with household income below $40,000, the rate of reported job loss in the same period was 39 percent — almost double the national figure.

Unemployment is impacting people of color at higher rates, too. In April, Hispanic unemployment surged to a record high 18.9 percent and black unemployment was recorded at 16.7 percent. During the same period, the unemployment rate among whites was 14.2 percent. 

And while many were cheered by the May 2020 numbers — a 1.4 percent decline in the national unemployment figures, a 1.8 percent decline in white unemployment, and a 1.3 percent reduction in Hispanic joblessness — black unemployment showed a different trend, rising slightly to 16.8 percent.

The impact of lost income during the pandemic also varies by race and ethnicity. The Census Bureau’s weekly Household Pulse Survey tells us that, between mid-March and the end of May, 61 percent of Hispanic households and 55 percent of black households reported a reduction in employment-related income. For white households, the rate was 43 percent.

Working conditions vary

Among those who are working, a different challenge emerges: reducing work-related exposure to COVID-19 is not evenly attainable. 

The most startling examples include the over-representation of people of color in some essential but high-risk industries. While Hispanics are 18.3 percent of the U.S. population, 35 percent of meat-processing employees are Hispanic. Blacks make up 13.4 percent of the U.S. population, but 22 percent of meat-processing employees. 

These workers and others in jobs that require close contact with fellow employees or customers may be at greater risk for COVID exposure.

What about working from home? Although emerging guidelines recommend continuing remote work when possible, not everyone has an equal opportunity to protect themselves (and their households) using this strategy. The Federal Reserve report tells us who has — and who has not — been working from home during the pandemic. 

During the last week of March, 41 percent of workers did all their work from home (in October 2019 this figure was 7 percent). 

Looking at these figures in greater detail reveals differences based on educational level. Only 20 percent of workers with a high school degree and 27 percent of workers who have completed an associate’s degree or some college worked entirely from home. Two-to-three times those rates (63 percent) of workers with at least a bachelor’s degree worked entirely from home.

Benefits are not the same

Low-wage workers, service industry workers, and workers with lower educational attainment are all less likely to have paid leave, putting too many people at risk of financial hardship if they experience coronavirus symptoms. The figures document clear disparities:

  • 57 percent of workers in the lowest quartile of earners have paid time off. Among the top quartile of earners, 86 percent have paid leave.
  • 43 percent of service workers have paid time off, while 82 percent of those in management, business, and financial operations have paid leave.
  • 64 percent of those with a high school diploma but no college education have paid time off, versus 79 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher have paid time off.

Moving forward

Missouri’s August election will include a ballot initiative to expand Medicaid, ensuring that more low-income individuals can access the health coverage that is needed to get through these unprecedented times.  The estimated 230,000 Missourians who would benefit the most from this expansion include those on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak: essential, low-wage workers in grocery stores, delivery drivers, and home health aides caring for our elderly neighbors. 

Health Forward encourages everyone to Vote Yes on 2 on the August ballot.

We also recognize that business and community leaders are working tirelessly to identify additional strategies for advancing our economy while protecting public health. As that occurs, we must all advocate to ensure that one’s race, ethnicity, gender, or economic status has no influence on quality employment opportunities and safe working conditions. Moving forward together to achieve that goal can help us emerge from this pandemic healthier than ever before.


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Health Forward Foundation
2300 Main Street, Suite 304
Kansas City, MO 64108
(816) 241-7006