When 2020 began, Kyra Hahn was making a living by employing a time-tested strategy in the African-American community. The Denver native had found a job in the public sector — as a youth-services librarian in Portland, Oregon.
Then Covid-19 hit. Ms Hahn’s work life grew “chaotic” as she dealt with rapidly evolving safety guidelines, a last-minute relocation of her branch and finally the news in August that her job was being eliminated as her library system responded to the pandemic. The next month, after weeks of union negotiations, she settled for a voluntary lay-off.
“I had this very delicate financial balance where I was able to maintain all my living expenses in Portland,” said Ms Hahn, a 47-year-old who identifies as African-American and Korean-American. “But that was dependent on nothing going wrong.”
Ms Hahn has moved back to Denver to figure out her next move and her misfortune highlights the heavy toll the pandemic is taking on African-American workers in the US, a group that came into the crisis with an unemployment rate 3.9 points above the national average.
Black Americans are being hit hard because so many are employed in the public sector, a legacy of Civil Rights-era anti-discrimination laws that opened up government jobs to African-Americans and have made them desirable ever since. Nearly one in six black Americans workers had jobs in the public sector in 2019, despite being only 12 per cent of the workforce.
Prospects for public-sector employment in the US, however, are bad and getting worse. The economic slowdown triggered by the pandemic has depressed tax receipts, forcing local governments to cut staff in schools, police stations, transit systems, libraries, city halls and state houses.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 130,000 state and local government workers were thrown out of work in October, bringing the total number of such positions lost since February to almost 1.4m — nearly double the 750,000 shed in the five years that followed last decade’s Great Recession.
With no federal relief in sight, state and local governments are expecting to see their combined revenues fall 5.5 per cent in 2020 — a shortfall of $155bn that will probably grow next year, according to the Brookings Institution.
Owing to requirements to balance their budgets by year’s end, these governments will have to slash more expenses. In New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Agency said it might have to eliminate 8,000 jobs unless it received billions more in federal aid.
“That’s a very significant loss and I think unfortunately that could just be the tip of the iceberg because a lot of these budget crunches haven’t fully manifested yet,” said economist David Cooper of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think-tank. “There’s a lot of loss of jobs that are potentially going to fall very heavily on workers of colour.”
The debate over federal stimulus legislation in Washington has bogged down over the question of whether to provide aid to state and local governments. Republicans have opposed such measures, arguing they are meant to bail out badly run Democratic jurisdictions. Democrats have countered that relief is needed to maintain services and save jobs.
“You’re going to see hundreds of thousands of police officers, firefighters, first responders, mental health clinics, you’re going to see them going out of business,” Joe Biden, the president-elect, warned in a speech on Monday.
With Washington deadlocked, many workers of colour are having to deal simultaneously with the spectre of economic hardship and the dangers posed by coronavirus.
Brandon Summers, 33, a black resident of Nevada who works as a teacher and a musician, said he will never forget the shock he experienced in March when his opportunities as a substitute in the Las Vegas schools and a hip-hop violinist in the city both disappeared.
“I wasn’t too concerned for the first month, but when one month turned into six months of no income, no employment, it became really troubling,” he said. “I’d never applied for unemployment in my entire life, and for the first time I was reaching out for help and saying, ‘I need food. I need money. I need help. I can’t pay my rent.’”
Mr Summers eventually found work in September as a $120-a-day substitute for a middle school orchestra teacher, but even though there is a possibility of an extension until May, he is thinking of trying his luck in the private sector. “I appreciate the stability and predictable income,” Summers said, “but it’s an extremely isolating type of environment to be in.”
Ms Hahn is not sure what she will do. She had been so enticed by her Oregon library job that she moved more than 1,000 miles away from her native Denver. Now that she is back home, there are nearly two job hunters for every open position — and coronavirus.
“I recognise that I have to survive the Covid pandemic first,” she said. “I have to survive that before I can even get a job.”