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Job loss effects of pandemic hammer Black workers

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A line wraps around the building early Thursday at the Virginia Career Works Roanoke office on Thirlane Road as people wait for help with jobless claims.

The economic pain of the pandemic is being acutely felt by Black workers, according to data for Virginia.

Jobless claims by Black workers have exceeded those by white workers since late June, even though Black people make up only about a fifth of the state’s workforce.

The statistic is presented each week by the Virginia Employment Commission. The disparity is also in plain view daily at the agency’s Roanoke office, where people line up outside for an appointment to troubleshoot unpaid claims for emergency financial relief.

About equal numbers of white and Black claimants are usually seeking help, according to Morgan Romeo, executive director of Virginia Career Works – Blue Ridge.

Samantha Grisham, 32, of Roanoke received jobless pay after she lost her job at a Roanoke restaurant but, still, “my finances have gone to crap,” said Grisham, who is Black.

According to economists and statistics, Black workers are overrepresented in industries slowed by the pandemic such as restaurants, motels and hotels, retail and health care. Meanwhile, they hold disproportionately fewer jobs in the still-stable industries that offer remote work, such as accounting, legal services and programming.

The week of July 5 brought another 15,242 preliminary claims from Black workers compared to 12,336 by white workers and 4,715 from other people who were nonwhite or whose race was unknown, according to statewide results from the VEC. The pattern of Black workers filing the most claims began in late June and continued to mid-July, the most recent period for which complete data is available. The pandemic is in its fifth month.

It’s urgent that lawmakers continue enhanced unemployment benefits as long as the COVID-19 crisis continues, according to a representative of the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis in Richmond, a nonprofit public policy group that seeks to advance racial justice.

Laura Goren, its research director, said recent trends resemble what happened during the Great Recession. In Virginia, “Black workers lost jobs at a very high rate and it took a long time for the unemployment rate to come down for Black workers to normal levels,” she said. “Much the same is happening now.”

Goren attributed the occupational skew to issues including longstanding disparities in education. “We still have relatively high levels of segregation in our cities and our counties, and Black Virginians are more likely to live in lower-income neighborhoods and attend schools that have fewer resources and are less likely to offer advanced coursework,” she said.

On top of unequal opportunity, there is discrimination in hiring, according to Goren, who cited matched pair testing research. Analysts send employers who are advertising job openings resumes for two similarly qualified, fictitious people, one with a white-sounding name and one with a Black-sounding name. Employer responses typically show significant discrimination against the fictitious Black job applicant, she said.

More than 1 million people have applied for jobless benefits in Virginia during the past four months, up from a usual rate of fewer than 200,000 a year. During the most intense eight weeks, between late March and early May, workers shed by the food, hospitality, retail and medical sectors filed 290,000 claims, half the total of 547,000 for the period.

The data for these sectors “tells a lot of the story” behind the bulge in Black jobless claimants, said Conrad Buckler, a VEC economist.

By comparison, people who lost work in the finance, information technology, insurance and professional and scientific sectors — which Chmura Economics & Analytics identified as highly compatible with remote work — contributed just 6% of Virginia initial claims, a Roanoke Times analysis found.

Those fields are staffed predominantly by white workers. Whites represent 77.1% of all workers in the United States and 76.5% of the workers in remote-work-compatible professions, according to Chmura Economics, which has a Richmond office.

Meanwhile, Black people in the U.S. account for 12.7% of all workers but just 7.4% of workers in occupations that can be done from home. Hispanics and Latinos account for 17.3% of all workers but 9% within the remote job category.

One minority group, Asians, are overrepresented in remote work. They constitute 6.5% of the work force but 13.7% of workers in remote work occupations, Chmura Economics found. These figures are for the country as a whole.

The U.S. job supply breaks down as follows: Twelve percent of positions are in “remote job occupations” that can be done from home, while 26% can sometimes be done from home — teaching and sales, for instance — and 62% can’t be done from home at all.

These are jobs such as store cashiers, nurses, janitors, waiters and waitresses, warehouse workers and heavy-equipment operators, Chmura Economics said.

Laid-off and furloughed workers of all races have been lining up at the Roanoke VEC office, which recently reopened with a significant backlog. The VEC has compared its workload of a million-plus jobless claims to processing six years of usual volume in four months. One reason some claimants have waited months for funds is that cases of COVID-related job loss sometimes involve a hearing officer for detailed analysis, VEC officials have said.

In a scene reminiscent of Black Friday, claimants arrived at the Roanoke VEC office on Thirlane Road before the doors opened Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. In a few cases, “they had lawn chairs. One guy had a cooler,” Romeo, the on-site official, said.

The office can assist about 50 people per weekday face-to-face, she said.

Several people still standing in line grumbled when Romeo stepped outside and announced Thursday that the day’s appointments have been spoken for. She coached people to return early the next day. VEC’s toll-free line, which is often busy, “doesn’t work,” she told them.

“We’re on their side,” Romeo said in an interview.

Brianna Washington of Roanoke, a 22-year-old certified nursing assistant who is Black, left her appointment with a look of exasperation. Washington left a post as a certified nursing assistant at Carilion Clinic on the advice of a manager because of the threat the virus poses to women who are pregnant, she said. Her jobless benefits have not yet arrived despite the passage of more than three months since she applied, she said.

Money from family members kept her afloat financially, but she felt a shift last week at the approach of a confluence of events: Her rent and electricity bill were due on Friday, which was also her delivery due date, she said. “It’s a big hassle when you don’t have money,” she said.

During the appointment that she waited hours to obtain, a representative had no new information. “He just told me to wait and I’ve been waiting for months,” she said.

Delonte Morton, 41, of Salem, who is also Black, described a similar experience. He said he is a former plumber’s apprentice who stopped working to care for his 11-year-old son when the child’s school closed. His fallback was savings when the paychecks stopped, but the near-depletion of those funds raises the prospect of utility disconnection or eviction, he said.

Morton called the VEC to locate the jobless benefits that he understands should be paid weekly to someone who stopped working because of the virus outbreak. Placed on hold by an automated answering machine, he waited and waited. “My phone record was two hours and 53 minutes and then the [VEC’s] phone just hung up,” he said.

During his face-to-face appointment at Career Works, he said an official told him to go back home and wait for a document to arrive in the mail with further information — a document he would need to return with information filled in. Morton questioned why the VEC would not use email.

Grisham, the former restaurant worker, had been tending bar at Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen in Roanoke and training workers at a Fredericksburg Cheddar’s location. She felt like she was turning her life around after struggles that included a period of homelessness, she said. When the pandemic hit and she lost her job, “I almost felt like I lost my way again,” she said.

To occupy her free time, she enrolled at ECPI University in Roanoke and is working on a bachelor’s degree in human resources management, she said. Although the bad still outweighs the good, there’s a silver lining to the COVID-19 crisis for her.

“I don’t see myself going back to school if I were still working full time,” she said.


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Jeff Sturgeon covers the city of Roanoke, including schools, banking and transportation. Phone: (540) 981-3251. Email: Mail: 201 W. Campbell Ave., Roanoke, VA 24011.

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