On the October Jobs Report: Keeping Sight of the Bigger Picture

This morning’s monthly jobs report shows the unemployment rate fell to 4.6%, indicating that job availability is improving for some workers. The unemployment rate for Black workers (7.9%) was still nearly twice the rate for white workers (4.0%). The unemployment rate for Black men rose from 8.0% to 8.3% even as the unemployment rate for Black women fell from 7.3% to 7.0%. Unemployment for Latinx workers was 5.9%, a decrease from last month’s rate of 6.3%.  

While we are encouraged by this job growth, which traditionally signals that the economy is improving, it is only a slice of the bigger picture. The COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Black, Latinx, women, and immigrant workers demonstrates a need to strive for and measure a just and inclusive economic recovery holistically—one also based on workplace safety improvements, access to paid time off and leave, retirement benefits, and healthcare access for these workers. 

These disparities are a result of structural racism embedded in the U.S. labor market and have been exacerbated by a pandemic that disproportionately impacted service sector jobs where workers of color are overrepresented. 

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed wages increased 4.9% in the last 12 months. Particularly noteworthy were wage gains for non-supervisory workers in leisure and hospitality, an underpaying industry where Black and Latinx workers are overrepresented as a result of occupational segregation. Average weekly earnings rose by $55.66 (14.2%) over the last year for non-supervisors in the leisure and hospitality industry. NELP celebrates the organizing led by Black, Latinx, and immigrant workers to demand higher pay and better working conditions. We also note that worker organizing prompted OSHA to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard on Vaccination and Testing. While it could have been more robust, we anticipate it will lead to more workers finding safer jobs in future months. 

Despite the improving conditions for some workers, 7.4 million people remained unemployed in October. And just 36% of unemployed workers (2.7 million people) were receiving unemployment benefits as of October 16. Since September 6th, when Congress allowed pandemic unemployment benefits to expire, millions of jobless workers lost access to unemployment insurance benefits. This is unacceptable. The nation needs permanent reform to build an unemployment system that will support jobless workers no matter what the economic conditions, not just temporary programs with arbitrary expiration dates. 

“Politicians and corporate spokespeople are wrongfully blaming unemployment insurance for workers’ unwillingness to be exploited by unsafe, poverty-wage jobs,” said Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project. “The reality is that working people need more power in the labor market and the workplace—not less. Black, Latinx, immigrant, and women workers have been taken for granted for too long. It’s a positive development when workers are able to seek jobs that match their experience, skills, and needs and are not simply forced to accept the first available option out of fear and desperation. We need an unemployment insurance system that provides adequate resources for them to do that.” 

Workers and communities organized and elected political leaders to deliver a just and inclusive recovery from the pandemic recession. Now is their time to deliver. Senator Ron Wyden has introduced the Unemployment Insurance Improvement Act, legislation which will begin to address some significant ways the unemployment insurance system disproportionately excludes Black and Latinx workers, women workers, and workers with disabilities by providing at least 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, increasing coverage for part-time workers, and expanding eligibility by requiring states to consider workers’ most recent earnings and standardizing earning requirements. It’s not too late to include this important bill in the Build Back Better Act, to begin to lay the groundwork for a transformed unemployment insurance system that will enable all workers to thrive. 

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