Coronavirus pandemic job losses falling hardest on people who were already hurting

Paul Roberts, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

That's clear in the healthcare sector, where many non-essential clinics have been slow to re-open. Brodkin says her clinic can't bring her back full-time until September.

Similarly, bars and restaurants that survived the shutdown will likely be operating for some time at reduced capacity, with smaller staffs, because of health restrictions.

"I have no idea when they're going to open back up," says William Parham, 35, of Seattle, who lost his security job at the University Avenue location of Supreme, a pizza-themed bar. "And I have no idea if I'm even going to be called back to work when they do decide to open back up."

Lower-wage jobs are also likely to be disproportionately affected by automation as employers try to cut labor costs in the recovery, says Vance-Sherman, the state Employment Security Department economist.

Recessions always accelerate automation, but the pandemic may push employers to use technology to lower safety-related costs, adds the UW's Glassman. Restaurants hoping to minimize contact between staff and customers, for example, may simply replace staff with automated ordering. "People are extremely expensive even in the best of times and (COVID-19-related) behavioral changes are making people especially expensive," she says.

Another obstacle to job recovery in the COVID-19 era is that workers themselves may be reluctant to return to workplaces that may not be safe.

Renee Stevens, 65, of Tacoma quit her job as a grocery store merchandiser in April out of fear of catching the coronavirus and infecting her family.

While Stevens wants to get back to work -- "I'm not a person who likes to sit around," she says -- she's still worried about workplace risks. When she visits her former employer, "probably 90% aren't wearing masks," she said. "It just astounds me."

The bleak labor picture has some silver linings. The federal stimulus package enacted in March provided comparatively generous benefits for low-wage workers. Although those benefits are set to expire in late July, some in Congress are pushing to extend them.


Some experts also see new political momentum to address job-market disparities arising from the ongoing protests over police brutality and racial injustice.

Caupain, with Byrd Barr Place, says local business leaders in sectors such as construction and real estate, where Black workers historically have been underrepresented, are now "doing a self-evaluation of the role they've been playing and what needs to change in the industry."

The social justice movement has also brought new political and philanthropic support for programs aimed at improving job prospects for young African Americans through retraining and other strategies, Caupain said.

Growing support for the Black Lives Matter movement in particular has shifted how many white progressives view the long-standing economic challenges in the Black community, Caupain says. "I think we have a critical mass of people who (are) listening in a different way and want to take action," Caupain said. "And that's exciting."

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