One Year In: The Pandemic’s Labor Impact By the Numbers

Political and business decisions during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have had a distinct impact on low wage workers in industries including retail. New research quantifying this impact has shown, in particular, that unemployment during the crisis disproportionately affected workers of color throughout the year. 

When lockdown requirements first went into place roughly a year ago, as health officials warned of the urgency to curb the spread of a new lethal airborne virus, nonessential businesses temporarily closed stores and furloughed employees. The unemployment that followed was historic — some 18 million workers were affected by those layoffs in April, a number that has since dropped to 3 million in December, according to a January report by the Congressional Research Service. 

But as of December, 3.3 million workers have permanently lost jobs, according to the CRS report, which highlighted the disproportionate impact of unemployment on Black and Latine workers. In April, the unemployment rate was 16.7 percent for Black employees and 18.9 percent for Latine workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In December, those unemployment rates for Black and Latine workers were 9.9 percent and 9.2 percent, respectively. Those figures stand in contrast to the overall unemployment rate in the U.S. last year, which first shot up to 14.8 percent in April and steadily progressed down to 6.7 percent, according to the BLS. 

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What’s more, in December, the BLS reported that all the 140,000 jobs lost that month were those of women. 

“For low wage workers in general, many of them are women and people of color,” said Kuochih Huang, a policy researcher on the UC Berkeley Labor Center’s Low-Wage Work team. 

“And among them, particularly women, especially women with children, they lost their jobs by far more than men because either their position was affected by the pandemic, or because they needed to quit their job or reduce their work hours because they needed to take care of their children,” Huang said. “Because child care facilities shut down or closed due to the concerns about the coronavirus, there was a two-fold hit on women with children.”  

Within the retail industry, apparel companies have been some of the hardest hit, with many large retailers entering Chapter 11 proceedings last year and emerging with a smaller footprint and shrunken workforce. J.C. Penney, for instance, shut down some 156 locations during its bankruptcy proceedings and let go of some 20,000 employees during the process. 

The job losses in retail continue, particularly in clothing and accessories stores, which lost 20,000 jobs in February, according to a BLS report this month.  

“Retail falls solidly within what economists think of as frontline industries,” said Bradley Hardy, a professor at the American University, where he chairs its department of public administration and policy. 

“Workers within this frontline category have been disproportionately affected by earnings losses and employment losses,” Hardy said. “Women of color have been disproportionately impacted — we are seeing evidence there’s improvement on those metrics, but workers of color and women of color are lagging behind many other demographic groups.”

New research also indicates a persistent racial wage gap. Even among “essential” workers, white men earned relatively more than other groups, according to a paper this month by researchers at the Peterson Institute of International Economics. According to the paper, white men “earned the highest share of average wages in essential occupations with high physical proximity (120 percent) while Black women earned the least (82 percent in comparison to White men).”

“All told, Black and Latinx workers faced higher peak rates of unemployment, were overrepresented in high health risk occupations, and were paid less,” the paper said. “These patterns are likely to persist as service sectors reopen.”

The impact and potential for long-term recovery of the retail workforce is still unclear, said Hardy of the American University, given the wide range of retail occupations that may continue to shrink.  

“I think that it’s important for folks, in general, to think about the notion that when we think about the retail workforce many people visualize workers conducting sales on the floor of their local clothing stores,” Hardy said. “But there are also buyers, support staff, clerical staff, schedulers and so on, and we have to watch for, to what degree those jobs come back.” 

“There could be less demand for those workers as you have less demand across the industry, and that’s something that economists and industry observers are going to have to keep their eye on,” he added. 

At the same time, workers who have to continue working at essential retailers that have stayed open through the pandemic have also sought to advocate about pay and safety measures to address the heightened risk of their work environments. 

Bianca Agustin, research director at the worker advocacy group United for Respect, said she has worked with organizers and retail workers regarding workplace safety hazards (including the lack of basic cleaning supplies in store bathrooms), and filed about a dozen complaints with Occupational Safety and Health Administration agencies. 

The group has also supported retail workers in their calls advocating for a “Five to Survive” platform since November to push for better working conditions, more say in discussing safety policies, and at least $5-an-hour in hazard pay. The workers have also backed the labor movement’s push to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, given that the current $7.25-an-hour wage has not increased in more than a decade.

The $15-an-hour federal minimum wage was originally part of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus plan, but its inclusion in the stimulus was both overruled by the Senate parliamentarian, and then voted down in the Senate. On Thursday, Biden signed a modified $1.9 trillion stimulus bill passed by the Senate and House earlier this month, which includes $1,400 one-time direct checks for what the White House said would go to roughly 85 percent of Americans, as well as an additional $300 weekly unemployment benefit.

“From a social justice perspective, I think the thing that’s important to focus on is that the types of retailers that went bankrupt during the pandemic were heavily focused in the clothing sector,” said Agustin. “The clothing retailers were forced to shut down, and that sub-segment of the industry is dominated by female workers, so you really saw a disproportionate impact on women during this period.” 

“On the essential workers, those who were ‘lucky’ enough to keep these jobs during the pandemic, you saw a reluctance and refusal on the part of major retailers to pay hazard pay and to increase wages,” she said. 

(Walmart, Target and Amazon did, however, give bonuses to their workers during the pandemic. Walmart said it paid $2.8 billion in regularly quarterly and special cash bonuses to employees in 2020, while Target gave out $1 billion more to employees last year than in 2019.)

United for Respect works with essential workers at major retailers and also has an ongoing program to work with retail workers from companies that have filed for bankruptcy. The group has a base of roughly 70,000 active members, including current and former employees of retailers including Walmart, Amazon, Petco and PetSmart, according to a representative for the group. Roughly half the group’s members are Black and other workers of color, while half are white, and a majority of its members are women, according to a membership breakdown provided by the group. 

“I do think that is something that, hopefully under the new administration, the conversation around hazard pay for essential work has resurrected,” Agustin said. “I’m hopeful there will be a bigger push now to do that.”

The Biden administration has also indicated plans to push for more oversight from the federal OSHA agency that sets basic workplace safety standards for employers around the country. In January, Biden issued an executive order asking the agency to consider temporary emergency standards to improve safety requirements in workplaces.

Data around COVID-19 rates for workers tends to be spotty, and varies between counties, depending on how and whether they are tracking workplace safety during the pandemic, said Huang of the UC Berkeley Labor Center. But his own research with colleagues has found that women and workers of color were disproportionately represented in jobs “with moderate to high levels of physical proximity to others,” including retail sales and cashiers jobs, according to his report in November on workers in California during the pandemic.

“In the retail sector as a whole, the majority of the occupations in that sector have moderately close physical proximity to others, and that will increase their risk of exposure,” Huang said. 

Nevertheless, on Thursday, the National Retail Federation continued to voice skepticism against the need for an emergency temporary standard from the OSHA, saying retailers had already taken rigorous steps, including social distancing and cleaning measures, to address workplace safety.

“NRF is concerned about the possibility of OSHA issuing a rigid, one-size-fits-all emergency regulation, particularly during a global pandemic that has already imposed substantial economic hardship on businesses,” the industry group said.

The toll of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. continues to climb, with nearly 29 million reported cases so far in the country, and nearly 530,000 reported deaths from the virus.

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