Minority Workers See Highest Levels Of Unemployment From COVID-19 Crisis NPR's David Greene talks to NPR's Scott Horsley and William Spriggs, chief economist for the AFL-CIO, about the pandemic's effect on joblessness — especially on minority employees.
NPR logo

Minority Workers See Highest Levels Of Unemployment From COVID-19 Crisis

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/870227952/870227953" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Minority Workers See Highest Levels Of Unemployment From COVID-19 Crisis

Minority Workers See Highest Levels Of Unemployment From COVID-19 Crisis

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/870227952/870227953" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We already know that a pandemic brought the highest unemployment rate in our country since the Great Depression. Later this morning, we will see if it has gotten even worse. Forecasters say new numbers could show unemployment reached near 20% last month. We also know the reality behind these numbers. It's the fact that the unemployment picture is even more dire for African Americans and Latinos. And we're going to talk more about that in a moment.

I want to start with NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what are analysts expecting from this new report out later this morning?

HORSLEY: It's expected to show that May was another month of historically bad job losses, though not as bad as April when, remember, we saw more than 20 million jobs wiped out. There's a pretty wide range of forecasts out there for May - none of them pretty - anywhere from 3 to 12 million jobs lost. And as you say, the unemployment rate's expected to keep climbing to Depression-era levels.

GREENE: Well - and we should say, there is a lot of variation depending on where you are in the country. Right?

HORSLEY: Yeah, we've seen a spike in unemployment in all 50 states. But it has been much higher in some areas than others. In April, for example, Michigan had the nation's second-highest unemployment rate behind only Nevada. That's partly because of all the auto plants that were shut down that month. They have started to reopen. But hairdressers in Michigan, for example, are not going to reopen for at least a couple more weeks. I talked to a hairdresser in Holland, Mich., Megan Hanneken (ph), who says her old clients are getting impatient.

MEGAN HANNEKEN: I've never felt so valued as a hairstylist, which is wonderful. But I also want to laugh when people are so upset about their hair. I'm like, you guys, it's hair.

HORSLEY: Hanneken says she is prepared to take precautions to avoid spreading the virus when she does go back to work. But she's not looking forward to wearing a mask all day or trying to cut hair with gloves on. And it's just a reminder, David, that, you know, some industries are going to be able to bounce back from this pandemic relatively quickly; others are going to take more time and a lot more adjustment.

GREENE: Well, has Hanneken been getting unemployment through all this?

HORSLEY: She has not, although she says all of her former salon co-workers are. So she is eligible. She should be receiving benefits. There's just been some kind of glitch there. She spent a lot of time trying to straighten it out. She's been going without pay for more than 2 1/2 months now.

GREENE: Wow.

HORSLEY: And she finally got hold to some law students at the University of Michigan who've been working to help people who are having trouble like she is.

HANNEKEN: And they let me know that I am not alone. There are a lot of people in the exact same boat that I'm in. It's a big mess.

HORSLEY: Across the country, we now have more than 37 million people who are receiving unemployment benefits or just recently applied for them. David, that's nearly 1 out of 4 people in the U.S. workforce.

GREENE: That's just astonishing. NPR's Scott Horsley.

Scott, thanks so much. We appreciate it.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

GREENE: And I do want to bring up now the topic of race and the role that race plays behind these numbers. We have Howard University economist William Spriggs with us. He's also the chief economist for the AFL-CIO. Professor, thanks for being here.

WILLIAM SPRIGGS: Thank you for having me.

GREENE: So we know from the numbers that African Americans, Latinos have seen even higher rates of unemployment than the overall number. Can you just help explain why that is the case?

SPRIGGS: Well, in this case, it's, for the Hispanic community, the industries in which they dominate. So they're very important to the restaurant industry. That industry lost the most amount of jobs. Before this downturn, we had 12.6 million Americans who worked in restaurants. And when you shut that down, that's a sector as large as the entire American manufacturing workforce.

GREENE: Wow.

SPRIGGS: So the job loss was very dramatic for them. Hispanic males, who had been enjoying an unemployment rate virtually the same as white males - they had been at 3.2% at the peak around January and February; white males were at 2.9% - now Hispanic males have an unemployment rate of 16.7%, which is actually higher than for black males. And the white male unemployment rate has now reached double digits. This is the first time ever that white men have suffered through double-digit unemployment. Black male unemployment went up to 16.4%. Hispanic females were hit exceedingly hard, as well, so their unemployment rate went up to 20.2%. So for them, it's the industries in which they are located. African Americans are also important in health care and physicians' offices and non-elective surgeries.

GREENE: Well, those are essential jobs we're talking about, some of them. Right?

SPRIGGS: Some of them are. But because those offices shut down, there were losses in that area. And child care shut down, and you just talked to a beautician. So part of this is industry. But now we're shifting. That was the very early wave of unemployment, and now we're shifting to where we're seeing job loss in manufacturing and in construction, which is why the white male unemployment rate now is at this double-digit level it's never been.

GREENE: Can I focus on African Americans for a moment, though? I mean, you mentioned some of those, like, jobs in health care were shut down. But African Americans are also more likely to hold essential frontline jobs. And those jobs have kept going, which makes me wonder - there's this reality. Even if you are able to keep your job if you're African American, there's a good chance that you are doing a job that puts you at more risk of getting a virus.

SPRIGGS: Absolutely. And despite what everyone has been saying that African Americans seem to be prone because of pre-existing health conditions, that's not the case in the data. The case is that African Americans are far more likely to catch the disease, and it's precisely because they have forward-looking occupations. When you look at the age of people who get COVID and end up being hospitalized in the black and brown communities, that's working-age people. For whites, it's those who are in long-term care facilities. So 64% of whites who are in long-term - who are in hospital for COVID are over 65. It's the opposite for black and brown people.

GREENE: Economist William Spriggs from Howard University and the AFL-CIO. Thank you for helping us understand some of the realities behind these numbers. Professor, we appreciate it.

SPRIGGS: Oh, thank you for having me on.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.