January Jobs Report: With Job Growth Strong, Workers Demand Greater Safety and Pay

Nationwide—In January, the unemployment rate remained steady at 3.7% according to new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The economy gained 353,000 jobs. The unemployment rate for Black workers was 5.3%, significantly higher than the 3.4% rate for white workers. The disparity is the result of structural racism in the U.S. labor market, including hiring discrimination and occupational segregation. At the same time, unemployment rates remain near historic lows.

“At times of historically low unemployment, it’s especially important to focus on the quality of jobs,” said Rebecca Dixon, president and CEO of the National Employment Law Project. “For example, we know that Amazon—a hugely profitable corporation and one of the nation’s largest employers—can certainly afford to provide safe and healthy workplaces and at least a middle-income livelihood to the more than 1 million U.S. workers it employs. Yet in state after state, Amazon sets new records for warehouse injuries, even as Amazon warehouse workers earn less than other warehouse employees.”

A recent study by NELP’s Irene Tung and Yannet Lathrop finds evidence that Amazon warehouse workers not only earn less than other warehouse employees, but they also earn substantially below the overall average earnings for all jobs in the counties where Amazon operates. Because Black women make up the largest group of front-line workers at the company, they are most likely to face the negative impact of Amazon’s business model. From Minnesota to California’s Inland Empire, Amazon warehouse workers are organizing for better standards, helping to build a good jobs economy.

The warehousing and storage industry employed 1.8 million workers in January, an increase of 5.5% from the prior month. The month’s largest job gains were in the professional and business services industry, which added 74,000 jobs. Employment in health care, retail trade, manufacturing, and government also added jobs, while 5,000 workers in the mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction industries lost jobs.

The unemployment rate was 5.0% for Latinx workers in January. Asian workers’ unemployment rate was 2.9%.

Even when economic growth is robust, millions of workers lose their jobs and need unemployment insurance. The loss of a job can be devastating to workers and their families no matter what the larger economic situation is. This is particularly the case for Black workers and other workers of color, who are less likely to have sufficient personal wealth or savings to cushion the blow of unemployment as a result of systematic exclusion from wealth-building opportunities over generations. In January, 6.1 million workers were unemployed, largely unchanged from 6.3 million in December.

Unemployment insurance should act as a bridge so that anyone who is out of work can sustain themselves as they seek a new job. The Unemployment Insurance Modernization and Recession Readiness Act, introduced by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Representative Don Beyer (D-VA), would strengthen this critical piece of social infrastructure by mandating that states offer at least 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, raising benefit amounts to replace a greater share of workers’ prior earnings, and increasing coverage for part-time workers, temp workers, and workers whose earnings fluctuate over time. The bill also establishes a new, federally funded Jobseekers Allowance to support jobless workers who would not otherwise be covered by unemployment insurance and modernizes the Extended Benefits program that makes additional weeks of unemployment benefits available in times of high unemployment.

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