Our Unequal Pandemic: Employment

As we pass the year mark of COVID-19’s first appearance in our community, Thrive DC has taken a look back to see how, and why, COVID has affected communities differently. We’ve looked at these effects through the lens of housing and healthcare – now we look at the past year through employment to see why COVID-19 has such an outsized impact on communities of color in DC.

Maria Oswalt via unsplash

There Has Never Been Equal Opportunity

Discrimination in the workforce is deeply rooted in DC’s history, going back to 1790. DC was established as a slave capital, and exploited enslaved persons to clear the land and build on it. Even after DC became free, Black Codes in the 1830s kept full equality impossible, and included an occupational license ban that limited Black residents to few, low-paying jobs.

The positions Black workers were limited to allowed for little to no opportunity for wealth building, establishing a disproportionate income gap between Black and white households that continues today.

While many explicitly racist laws have been lifted, racism still persists in the job market. From continued segregation in the workplace to restrictions on work opportunities for returning citizens – 95% of whom are Black residents in DC – discrimination in employment has set Black workers back for years. And during the pandemic, it exacerbated the major disparities between Black and white DC residents.

Discrimination in Employment During COVID-19

It’s no surprise that these larger, ongoing employment trends make Black Americans even more vulnerable during the pandemic.

As mentioned, Black workers are more likely to have low wage, essential in-person jobs due to segregation in hiring. These jobs put DC’s Black population on the frontlines of the pandemic, exposing them to the greatest risk when we knew the least about the virus.

And with a large percentage of Black residents taking public transportation to get to work, overcrowded bus rides and exposure to shared public surfaces put them at an even greater risk.

Unemployment was just as much of an issue. Just a few months into the crisis, Black unemployment nearly doubled in DC forcing many to skip meals to save up food stamps and/or worry about a looming eviction. As Thrive saw in our community, food insecurity was a major concern for many families who lost their jobs and didn’t know what was going to happen next.

Our emergency grocery program grew almost 4,000% in response to the need from families.

Lack of jobs and little opportunity for growth has been a problem for Black DC residents since the start. On top of historical inequality, we saw this past year DC’s Black community take the one-two punch of our city’s most risky jobs for contracting the virus and largest risk of food insecurity and homelessness through unemployment.

How to Fix it

As we come out of the pandemic, we must – as a community and a city – enshrine equity in our response.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute has laid out solutions for closing the gap between Black and white workers. However, these won’t happen on their own – to rectify the wrongs of our city’s past, decisions that policymakers make must be intentional, prioritizing those residents who have been disproportionately affected.

These are not one-time fixes, but part of a larger pattern towards justice in our city.

We must create equity in the workplace, ensuring that racism has no place in the hiring process and prioritizing more Black workers in all occupations and fields.

Existing wage and worker protection laws must be enforced and stronger protections adopted.

We must destigmatize returning citizens, and set up more networks and opportunities for those coming back from incarceration. Our city has an unequal history. The pandemic only clarified the extent of inequality between white residents and communities of color, making something that has been obvious to many, understood by all. Now, with a common understanding, we must do something about it. 

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