Job losses land hard on peo­ple of color

USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Deb­o­rah Barfield Berry

WASH­ING­TON – Opal Fos­ter went to work last Wed­nes­day at a small print­ing com­pany in Rockville, Mary­land. By lunchtime, the graphic designer had been laid off. The com­pany’s main cus­tomers – pri­vate schools, en­ter­tain­ment venues and na­tional mu­se­ums – had closed be­cause of the coro­n­avirus out­break, so busi­ness had nearly come to a halt. The sin­gle mother, who has a son with Down syn­drome, will rely on some free­lanc­ing to help make ends meet and turn to fam­ily and area food banks to help fill her cup­boards. “For the short term, that’s the BandAid on the wound,” said Fos­ter, 45, who is African Amer­i­can. “But that doesn’t pay my car note. That doesn’t pay my rent.” Fos­ter is among thou­sands of em­ploy­ees at small busi­nesses, restau­rants, ho­tels, bars and man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pa­nies who lost their jobs in re­cent days be­cause of the pan­demic. Civil rights groups worry that those work­ers, many of whom are peo­ple of color, will be sent in a down­ward spi­ral, scrap­ing to pay bills and feed

their families.

“We know that when the econ­omy goes into de­cline, peo­ple of color al­ways bear the brunt,” said Teresa Can­dori, com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor for the Na­tional Ur­ban League. “We will be fight­ing to make sure the most vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties are not an af­ter­thought.”

It’s un­clear if Wash­ing­ton’s re­cov­ery plans will go far enough to get these work­ers through the hard­ship. Na­tional law­mak­ers were at odds over what to in­clude in Congress’ lat­est stim­u­lus bill aimed at pro­vid­ing re­lief for work­ers and busi­nesses hit hard by the out­break. Repub­li­cans and Democrats differed over some key pro­vi­sions, in­clud­ing the length of time for un­em­ploy­ment benefits and is­sues like fund­ing for food stamps.

Na­tional civil rights lead­ers have called for a meet­ing with congressio­nal lead­ers to push for more help for low­in­come work­ers, who are dis­pro­por­tion­ately com­mu­ni­ties of color. Those groups his­tor­i­cally have been over­looked or left be­hind by the fed­eral govern­ment dur­ing ma­jor crises, said Melanie Campbell, pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Coali­tion on Black Civic Par­tic­i­pa­tion.

She called the coro­n­avirus equal- op­por­tu­nity pan­demic.’’

“If you think about ( Hur­ri­cane) Ka­t­rina, if you think about other catas­tro­phes, a lot of times bailouts ended up tak­ing care of the top and it trick­les down to the peo­ple,” Campbell said. “Our fed­eral govern­ment has to be bold about re­sponses as this is an ever- evolv­ing pan­demic that can be­come a real catas­tro­phe for peo­ple’s daily lives.”

Many black Amer­i­cans, Lati­nos, Na­tive Amer­i­cans and other com­mu­ni­ties of color saw their house­hold wealth de­cline dur­ing the 2008 Great Re­ces­sion and have yet to fully re­cover, rais­ing ques­tions about whether the lat­est finan­cial down­turn will set them back even fur­ther. The me­dian wealth of mid­dle- class black peo­ple dropped to $ 33,600 in 2013, down 47% from be­fore the re­ces­sion. For His­pan­ics, me­dian wealth fell to $ 38,900, a 55% de­cline since 2007. White families saw their me­dian wealth de­cline by 31% to $ 131,900, ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter.


‘ Al­most like dooms­day is com­ing’

For some small- busi­ness own­ers, the pan­demic has meant shut­ting down be­cause of lo­cal re­stric­tions, or los­ing cus­tomers afraid of go­ing about their nor­mal rou­tine.

On a re­cent af­ter­noon, the smell of spices wel­comed vis­i­tors as they walked into The Spice Suite, a quaint shop in Wash­ing­ton, D. C. Small glass bot­tles of spices lined the shelves. Olive oils in sil­ver dis­pensers were stacked along one wall. Cus­tomers Janel Jack­son and Kash­miere Apol­lon, both reg­u­lars, sniffed spices and lined them up at the cash reg­is­ter.

A Costco- size bot­tle of Germ- X rested on the edge of a ta­ble at the front of the store. Apol­lon pressed down on the pump, squirt­ing the san­i­tizer into her hands. She had heard the store would tem­po­rar­ily close that day.

“It’s go­ing to be ter­ri­ble,” she said. “So many peo­ple fre­quent this place.”

An­gel Gre­go­rio, the bou­tique’s owner, had made the tough de­ci­sion the night be­fore to close for at least two months. Gre­go­rio opened the store five years ago and won a $ 50,000 grant from the city last year to ren­o­vate. That work had re­cently been com­pleted.

Gre­go­rio, who is black, said un­cer­tainly and fear of the spread of coro­n­avirus has kept many of her cus­tomers away.

“What we’ve no­ticed is that folks are just not sure, just gen­er­ally, about whether to leave” their homes, Gre­go­rio said. “And then com­ing to get spices, it’s like ‘ I used to come out specifically for the Spice Suite but since I’m in the gro­cery store and been in this line for two hours, I may as well just get these big- box brands while I’m here.’ ”

Still, she’s grate­ful for loyal cus­tomers who came to shop in re­cent days. “It’s al­most like dooms­day is com­ing, and ev­ery­one just wants to get what they can un­til we get fur­ther no­tice about how to pro­ceed,” she said.

Gre­go­rio said small busi­nesses like hers will need finan­cial aid from fed­eral, state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments to help re­cover and make “our em­ploy­ees whole.”

Clos­ing the store has a rip­ple effect.

Lynette Jefferies, owner of My Desserts Diva, sells her baked goods, in­clud­ing peach pound cake and sweet potato tarts, out of Spice Suite. She’s among the 20 black women who sell their goods at the shop.

Jefferies said this would prob­a­bly be her last time sell­ing desserts in per­son for a while. She plans to fo­cus on online sales and take ad­van­tage of the time shut in­doors to work on an e- cook­book.

“It hurts a lot,” she said. “This is my liveli­hood. This is how I pay my bills.”

‘ I’m heart­bro­ken’

Other small- busi­ness own­ers weren’t sure whether they should close their doors and start let­ting work­ers go.

Kookie Park spent the week­end weigh­ing whether to open her cafe in down­town Wash­ing­ton, D. C., this week. With many of her reg­u­lars work­ing from home be­cause of the coro­n­avirus, the num­ber of cus­tomers com­ing to buy fried chicken wings, fried fish and other pop­u­lar items off the hot buf­fet has dropped from about 600 a day to barely 100 by the end of last week.

“Day by day, and I’m los­ing more peo­ple be­cause now peo­ple are not com­ing to work,” said Park, who along with her hus­band, Dae Kim, owns the Cor­ner­stone Cafe.

There was much less food to pre­pare, so only half of Park’s eight work­ers were called into work. With nearby ho­tels ex­pected to shut down, she ex­pects ever fewer cus­tomers.

Park plans to pay her work­ers, all of whom are Lati­nos, for at least the next two weeks. Af­ter that, she’s not sure.

“I’m heart­bro­ken,” said Park, who is Korean Amer­i­can. “I mean, I have to pay rent my­self, too, so I’m wor­ried about that, too. But as a boss, I want to take care of them be­cause they’ve been work­ing with me such a long time and I want to go through this hard time to­gether. ... They have their own families, so it’s kind of hard for them, too.”

Park is hop­ing the city will help small busi­nesses like hers and Congress will step up with aid. The last time the cafe suffered was when the fed­eral govern­ment shut­down in 2018. That was a long 35 days, but it wasn’t like this.

“This time, I’m not sure,” she said. “I don’t know be­cause no­body knows.”

Many can’t work from home

Ex­perts said it’s un­clear how many jobs will be lost be­cause of the out­break. But many who have al­ready lost their jobs and who could lose their jobs soon in­clude service work­ers and other jobs that are dis­pro­por­tion­ately done by peo­ple of color, they said.

The num­ber of peo­ple filing for un­em­ploy­ment benefits in­creased last week by 70,000 to 281,000, ac­cord­ing to a La­bor Department re­port. It at­trib­uted the ini­tial jump to COVID- 19 and cited lay­offs in various fields, in­clud­ing ho­tel and restau­rants.

Many peo­ple of color are in jobs that don’t have the op­tion of work­ing at home, said Danyelle Solomon, vice pres­i­dent of Race and Eth­nic­ity Pol­icy at Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress.

“You can’t re­ally work from home if you’re wait­ing ta­bles, cook­ing, tak­ing care of folks as a home aide, or the health care work­ers who are in the hos­pi­tals right now,” said Solomon, coau­thor of a re­port re­leased last week on the pan­demic and its im­pact on the ra­cial wealth gap.

Ac­cord­ing to the CAP re­port, 16% of Latino work­ers and 20% of black work­ers are able to work from home, com­pared with 30% of white work­ers.

The re­port also found that black, Asians and Lati­nos are over­rep­re­sented in typ­i­cally low- pay­ing jobs in the restau­rant and ho­tel fields. Nearly 14% of work­ers in the ac­com­mo­da­tion and food ser­vices fields are black and 27% are Latino, ac­cord­ing to the U. S. Bureau of La­bor statis­tics.

Those jobs of­ten don’t offer comprehens­ive health care and other benefits, such as 401( k) and paid sick leave, Solomon said.

“Peo­ple of color were not sit­ting in the best eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion to be­gin with and this pan­demic is only go­ing to ex­ac­er­bate that prob­lem,” she said.

She said those work­ers can’t re­spond to “eco­nomic shocks,” whether it’s deal­ing with a flat tire or los­ing a job be­cause of a pan­demic.

“It’s much harder for you to weather that storm if you don’t have those ex­tra re­sources that folks with wealth have,” she said.

Com­mu­ni­ties of color were par­tic­u­larly hard- hit dur­ing the 2008 re­ces­sion, and some are still strug­gling from that, said Shaomeng Jia, an eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sor at Alabama State Univer­sity.

Peo­ple at an eco­nomic dis­ad­van­tage are “al­ready not do­ing so great in a good day, let alone in a rainy day,” he said.

Jose Ri­cardo is al­ready brac­ing to dip into his sav­ings to pay next month’s bills for his mo­bile home in Chula Vista, Cal­i­for­nia. Ri­cardo, a waiter at a Ja­panese restau­rant in San Diego, is work­ing only 16 hours a week, down from the usual 32 hours two weeks ago.

“I’m re­ally ner­vous,” said Ri­cardo, 61. “We are used to work­ing hard.”

With new re­stric­tions on restau­rants to serve take­out only, Richardo no longer has the ex­tra in­come from tips. He makes $ 12 an hour.

“Peo­ple pay tips be­cause they get a service. We’re tak­ing care of them,’’ he said. “Now, with take­out, they pick it up and bye- bye.”

Ri­cardo, who lives with his wife, mother- in- law and two chil­dren, said he was anx­iously wait­ing to see how law­mak­ers will help him and other work­ers.

He’s hold­ing out hope. “We will re­cover for sure,” he said.

In Na­tive Amer­i­can lands, the eco­nomic pains of the coro­n­avirus has been felt as fewer tourists visit, forc­ing the clo­sures of some restau­rants, mu­se­ums, cul­tural cen­ters and gam­ing op­er­a­tions, said Kevin Al­lis, head of the Na­tional Congress of Amer­i­can In­di­ans.

“Not only do the busi­nesses shut down, no longer pro­vid­ing in­come for tribal gov­ern­ments to run its pro­grams, al­most all the em­ploy­ees are tribal mem­bers,’’ said Al­lis of the For­est County Potawatomi com­mu­nity in Wis­con­sin. “So when these places shut down, not only now does the govern­ment have no more money com­ing to it, it ex­pe­ri­ences an enor­mous un­em­ploy­ment rate that fur­ther crip­ples and has a cat­a­strophic effect on these par­tic­u­lar com­mu­ni­ties.”

Can’t work if jobs aren’t there

Fos­ter, who was re­cently laid off from the small print­ing com­pany, plans to post her re­sume online but is sure that be­cause of the out­break, many com­pa­nies won’t be con­duct­ing in­per­son in­ter­views un­til at least May. That’s if they’re hir­ing at all.

“You can only find jobs if they are there,” said Fos­ter, who lives in Sil­ver Spring, Mary­land.

“I’ll keep try­ing.”

Though her now former boss promised to put her and oth­ers back to work when the econ­omy starts up again, Fos­ter said she needs a salary now.

A day af­ter be­ing laid off, she hur­ried to get her root canal – two of them – be­fore her benefits run out at the end of the month.

Mean­while, she’s putting on hold plans to take her son, Jeremiah, to Le­goland in Florida this sum­mer. It would have been their first “true” va­ca­tion, she said. The amuse­ment park might not even be open by then – plus, she said, she has to stretch the lit­tle sav­ings she has.

“We didn’t have a whole lot ex­tra, but we were mak­ing it,’’ she said. “Iron­i­cally, we were just kind of get­ting on track when the rug was pulled out from un­der us.”

Kash­miere Apol­lon, left, and Janel Jack­son are reg­u­lars at the Spice Suite in Wash­ing­ton, D. C., which planned to tem­po­rar­ily close. DEB­O­RAH BARFIELD BERRY/ USA TO­DAY

Lynette Jef­feries, owner of My Desserts Diva, sells her goods at The Spice Suite. “It hurts a lot” to see the store close, she says. DEB­O­RAH BARFIELD BERRY/ USA TO­DAY

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