Unemployed Black Americans historically remain without work even as unemployment for some other populations shows faster signs of recovery, a trend again reflected in the latest monthly employment report, released Thursday by the Department of Labor.
While all groups saw gains, they weren’t even. Recovery for Asian workers last month was slowest, less than one percentage point. Latino rehiring has been swiftest, with white workers close behind, but their employment gains began a month before other groups and have had the steadiest recovery, dropping from 14.2 percent in April to 10.1 percent in June.
Black unemployment fell to 15.4 percent in June, down from a high of 16.8 percent in May, and is the highest of all groups.
President Donald Trump touted “record” gains made by Black workers, saying at a news conference on Thursday morning, “African-American workers, really happily for me, made historic gains, with 400,000 jobs added last month.”
However, families left behind are scrambling to pay their rent and electrical bills, and piecing together assistance in order to put food on the table.
“I’m surviving,” said Orlando Dunnum, a 38-year-old Black woman from Georgia furloughed in March from her jobs as a line cook from two different restaurants. “It may be perceived as if I have it all together, but I don’t.” At home she lives with her disabled mother, whom she helps take care of, and her elderly grandmother.
Dunnum applied for unemployment and received it, when the benefits suddenly stopped in June, an issue she said affected over a dozen of her coworkers at O’Charley’s, a casual dining chain. She told NBC News she kept trying to contact the state unemployment office but couldn’t get anyone on the phone, and didn’t want the health risks of trying to go in person.
Dunnum said she is exhausted from jumping through hoops and not getting answers from managers, and she’s getting desperate.
Having just received her first SNAP food benefits card, Dunnum told NBC News that for the first time in her life she’s trying to put together the words to ask her landlord for a break.
“I’m so used to paying bills on time, I’ve never had to do this,” Dunnum said. “Never had to ask for a favor. I don’t know how to.”
In response to inquiries from NBC News, the Georgia Department of Labor contacted Dunnum to let her know her know her employer needed to request benefits on her behalf. Under a recent and unique emergency rule intended to streamline a process straining under the demand influx, Georgia employers must file weekly for workers who have been furloughed or had their hours reduced, or the workers will stop receiving benefits.
After being contacted by NBC News, the chain’s corporate office said it would investigate the issue.
After NBC News contacted executives at O’Charley’s, weeks of backlogged unemployment were posted to Dunnum and to other staff.
Black workers are most likely to be in jobs affected by the coronavirus that can’t be done remotely and require face-to-face contact, such as food service and hospitality, manufacturing, temp work, and nursing, said Gary Burtless, a labor economist at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution.
“Disproportionately, the layoffs have been in lower wage occupations, in lower wage positions,” he said. “That has disproportionately affected African-Americans and Hispanics.”
Workers in the food and service industries are among those hardest hit by the lockdowns implemented nationwide to halt the spread of the coronavirus. Even in restaurants and bars that have reopened, customers are only trickling back.
Nitia Johnson, 28, was furloughed in March from her job as a server and bartender at a pizza parlor on Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
“Me and my daughter had to move in with a friend that just so happened to owe me money before the pandemic,” Johnson told NBC News.
In early June, restaurants and bars began to reopen in Louisiana. But the capacity was greatly reduced, and Johnson said her employer only called three workers back. She wasn’t one of them.
“I was making $1,000 weekly,” thanks to tips, she said. “Now I’m depending on the government. I can’t depend on someone else if I’m the sole provider for another human being.”
After pandemic unemployment assistance runs out at the end of July, her weekly income will drop to just $53 after taxes. The unemployment benefits are based just on her hourly wage, $9 an hour.
“It’s put a tremendous strain on us financially,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do when the stimulus is over.”
Initially, the coronavirus kickoff to the recession was abrupt and hit everyone at once, leading to a unique situation where unemployment rose at similar, sharp rates across all ethnic groups. But now that some states have started reopening and employers are making choices about who comes back.
“A sort of pulling apart of unemployment rates,” is emerging, said Valerie Wilson, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank. The picture overall is “more typical of what we see in a recession,” she said.
“Typically we see Black and Latino unemployment rise first and faster, and then as jobs improve, see them recover last.”
Over the years, advancements in educational investments and opportunities helped narrow the racial wealth gap but access to higher education alone is no guarantee. Racial disparities in salaries still exist among workers with similar education and qualifications.
Education “improves your chances,” at a better paying job, Wilson said, but “it does not address gaping inequality.”