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The Intersection of Coronavirus and Racial Inequality in the Workplace

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The Intersection of Coronavirus and Racial Inequality in the Workplace

Why Black and Latino Americans experience disproportionate levels of unemployment and underemployment — and why COVID-19 is making this worse.

With the US experiencing significant increases in infection rates and deaths from COVID-19, Black and Latino communities continue to feel the double whammy of the pandemic in both their wallets and their health. On the economic side, of the millions of Americans out of work, job losses have hit Latino and Black communities disproportionality, with lower-wage workers ages 50-plus being the most vulnerable. The rate of job loss for Black workers has continued to rise while the rate of job losses for other workers has begun to plateau since May.

On the health side, Black and Latino adults are far more likely to experience serious illness and death from COVID-19. Many older workers in Black and Latino communities live in additional fear for the health of their loved ones as the number of cases increases in every corner of the country. This fear and concern are so deep and widespread, many would go so far as to sacrifice their paycheck to preserve their health as well as that of those close to them.

The Disproportionate Economic Impact

The pandemic has magnified disparities caused by institutional racism. As AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins recently said, “These disparities are not random, but instead are the result of inequality due to a lack of social, economic and political opportunities.” Institutional racism, has long limited housing, education and job opportunities for those living in Black and Latino communities—many of whom earn paychecks in essential roles that bring them closer to COVID-19. Higher rates of poverty and barriers to physical activity and healthy and affordable foods have further contributed to higher rates of identified risk factors like diabetes for severe COVID-related illness.

As some states report increasing rates of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths, the stakes are higher than ever now. It is imperative that proper precautions are in place to mitigate the resurgence in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, particularly for Black and Latino workers.

A Multi-sector Approach

Addressing these longstanding systemic drivers of inequities requires a multi-sector approach that draws upon the public, private and non-profit sectors to surface innovative and collective solutions. As JPMorgan Chase Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon noted in his open letter to shareholders, “this crisis must serve as a wake-up call and a call to action for business and government to think, act and invest for the common good and confront the structural obstacles that have inhibited inclusive economic growth for years.”

Many states created COVID-19 task forces to examine and address the inequities that have been exacerbated by the novel coronavirus. Private sector leaders can and should play a role in these task forces as well as in their capacity as employers.

Here are a few ideas for things private sector leaders can do now to address racial equity and support all employees as we navigate this pandemic:

  1. Select a diverse team of leaders to design the reopening plan with a focus on and attention to addressing racial equity across a life course. The team selected to create the plan matters and should represent a range of demographic factors, experiences, expertise and workers—from the frontlines to administrative and executive levels. Now is also an important time to update diversity, equity and inclusion policies with an eye to the future.
  2. Be aware of unconscious biases and disrupt stereotypes. By law, it is illegal to discriminate based on race, ethnicity, age, life stage or any other demographic factor. Yet the views employers have about workers can subtly find their way into decision-making. Work with the leadership team to assess current practices using a racial equity lens as well as a nod to age and life stage to ensure policies resonate along the spectrum of employees. Leverage the learnings of the pandemic to inform future plans for business resilience that provides workers the flexibility and support needed to contribute, despite extenuating circumstances.
  3. Implement a racial equity lens in all aspects of corporate policies and practices, starting with the reopening protocols. Executives leading reopening efforts should use racial equity tools to assess recommendations for responsiveness and relevance with employees and customers of color. The Society for Human Resources Management or SHRM offers many tools on “Global & Cultural Effectiveness” and corporate culture that provide a place to start. Additionally, global scholar and organizational consultant Dr. Laura Morgan Roberts and her collaborators outline tangible steps in the Harvard Business Review piece titled, “How U.S. Companies Can Support Employees of Color Through the Pandemic.”
  4. Provide additional assistance such as paid leave, dependent care, transportation, hazard pay and other resources to help all workers, especially low-wage workers and their families. Many low-wage workers will need extra support during the reopening because childcare or elder care is not available or because of other family responsibilities. Employers have a role to play in ensuring access to these critical employment supports.
  5. Take the long view. We will eventually get past this pandemic and business will be back on track. When that day comes, businesses will benefit from a healthy and financially secure diverse workforce that is representative of the consumer-at-large and that understands their needs, desires and pain points. Rebuild with an eye to the future.

We have the opportunity to design not a recovery, but a reset that addresses the causes of increased death among Black and Latino workers and allows all to access safe opportunities to engage and earn a paycheck again, regardless of background, age, education or health condition.

An Expanded Bottom Line

As our country reopens, our goal cannot be to return to the past inequities that have resulted in these disparities in job losses and deaths from COVID-19.  Reopening the economy in a safe way for all is not just a moral and ethical imperative, but a business imperative. Employees of all backgrounds and ages bring strengths that organizations can leverage as they navigate the crisis—both now and in the long term. Approaching the recovery as a reset with a focus on ensuring equitable access to work for all who want and need to work will put us on a path to build a stronger, more resilient economy. Equity will enable not only greater prosperity, but the means to better withstand any future crises.

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