The Senate will convene today to consider President Biden’s nominee for the Secretary of Labor, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. Mayor Walsh, if confirmed, will inherit a labor force and an economy in crisis. The year 2020 ended with 9.8 million fewer jobs than before the pandemic recession began in February, nearly 11 million workers unemployed, and long-term unemployment exceeding 37%.
The economic crisis has disproportionately affected Black, Hispanic, and older workers. While the overall unemployment rate remained at 6.7% in December, the unemployment rate for Black Americans was 9.9%, slightly less than the worst overall unemployment rate of 10% experienced during the Great Recession. Unemployment among Hispanic workers increased in the same time period to 9.3%. And, the length of unemployment among workers over age 55 is increasing exponentially. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the long-term unemployment rate for workers over age 55 rose to 41% as of October 2020, almost ten percentage points higher than the rate for workers age 16-54.
In addition to the immediate crisis, American workers face a dynamic, technology-infused workplace that will eliminate jobs and requires different skills to succeed over the long-term. A study by the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that 16 to 54 million U.S. workers — or as much as a third of our workforce — will need to be retrained for entirely new occupations. And, again, automation is expected to disproportionally impact African American workers. The same report found that Black workers are at a 10% higher risk to losing their jobs from automation than the general population.
The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 and the economic recession is rooted in several factors, but none as significant as systemic inequity. Valerie Wilson perfectly captures the impact of systemic inequity on our workforce in her piece “50 Years After the Riots“. “Despite decades of policies, programs, protests and outstanding achievements by African American men and women in many aspects of American life,” Wilson wrote, “race far too often remains a deciding factor in the economic status of African Americans relative to whites.”
Confronting systemic inequity so that every worker can access a path to economic opportunity is the right thing to do, And it is the smart thing to do. Equitable economic opportunity and closing the racial wealth gap could increase the U.S. GDP by 4-6% by 2028.
We cannot meet the goal of the Biden Administration to Build Back Better without confronting the systemic inequity in our country’s institutions. My hope is that Secretary-nominee Walsh will call on policy makers, employers, and educators to take bold, direct action. Our economy needs it. And, more importantly, our workers deserve it.