Tiffany Arnold had been a paratransit driver for Atlanta’s mass transit system, MARTA, for nine years when COVID-19 sent the city into lockdown. Just like that, her job and all her co-workers’ jobs vanished.
“How are we going to eat, how are we going to live, how are we going to pay the utilities?” she said in a recent interview, recalling the first few thoughts to race through her head. Arnold, 42, has two children, and she had just purchased a home six months before the pandemic started. Her first few unemployment checks were not even enough to cover the mortgage.
Arnold was able to hang on until MARTA reopened last summer. But thousands of Black families like hers have not been as lucky. The public sector employs roughly one out of every five Black workers in normal times, making this one more way the pain of the COVID-19 pandemic — which had wiped out nearly 1.4 million public sector jobs — has fallen disproportionately on Black families.
“The public sector is a very Black sector,” said Janel Bailey, the co-director of organizing and programs for the Los Angeles Black Worker Center, a grassroots labor organization. “What that looks like today, in 2021, with this massive job loss, particularly in the public sector, is extreme pressure on Black families.”
Black families started the recession with less savings and worse employment prospects than other American families, meaning even those who held on to their jobs may be under extreme pressure to support family members who didn’t.
“We were already dealing with a Black jobs crisis when this started, but this pandemic has just really done a number on folks,” Bailey said. “It’s outrageous.”
President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, the American Rescue Plan, dedicates $350 billion to reversing the damage, and with no time to spare: State and local government job losses during the pandemic are already three times greater than they were during the Great Recession. In February, when the economy gained 379,000 jobs overall, the public sector still lost 86,000 jobs. Those jobs disappeared even though the broader economy is showing signs of recovery and many states’ projected budget shortfalls are starting to shrink.
Education, in part because it is one of the biggest line items in every state budget, accounts for more than two-thirds of the total public sector losses. But given the scale of services the government provides, no occupation has gone completely unaffected, including social workers, health care workers, courthouse personnel, transit workers, maintenance workers, home care providers, IT staff, parks and recreation workers, librarians and camp counselors.
“It impacts on really every public service job,” said Lee Saunders, president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO. “It’s a shame. Those that have been working and been furloughed and laid off, they’ve been providing essential services and, many of them, risking their lives every day. And then they get a pink slip? That’s unacceptable.”
The amount of relief for cities and states in the American Rescue Plan more than doubles the amount in the CARES Act, which is the only other COVID-19 relief bill to have included any city and state aid. And unlike the CARES Act, it sends relief directly to thousands of small towns and counties. Under the CARES Act, many smaller municipalities had to wait months for the money to be doled out by their state.
The American Rescue Plan also gives state and local governments the flexibility to use the money for more than just costs directly related to managing the pandemic, such as using the funds to prevent cuts.
Advocates are cautiously optimistic that the size of the package is enough.
“The majority of Americans think this is absolutely necessary,” Saunders said. “They’re feeling the crunch, they’re seeing public services decline, they’re seeing their communities decline.”
We were already dealing with a Black jobs crisis when this started, but this pandemic has just really done a number on folks. Janel Bailey, co-director of organizing and programs for the LA Black Worker Center
The extended unemployment benefits and the stimulus checks in the American Rescue Plan may also make thousands of struggling families whole again.
When Duval County put Shirley Thomas and hundreds of support staff on a five-week furlough last spring, Thomas quickly found herself behind on her bills. She works as a school custodian, which these days almost exclusively involves disinfecting classrooms after a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19.
“For me to be laid off even that short of a time, it was really scary,” she recalled. She is supporting seven family members on her single paycheck, including a sister who recently lost her apartment and is sleeping on Thomas’ recliner. “Every bill was in the red. The main thing that helped me out was the stimulus check. When I got the $1,400, it put everything back in the green for me. I can breathe a little bit.”
As Thomas’ situation shows, public sector employment isn’t a sure path to savings and stability. Black workers in government jobs still face discrimination and are underrepresented in the highest-paying positions.
In the pandemic, many of them are working jobs that are outright dangerous: Arnold, whose MARTA job is also a contract position, often makes close physical contact with customers as she helps them board the bus. And Thomas, 58, only recently received a vaccine after months of cleaning classrooms where someone had tested positive for the virus.
Still, absent a recession, the public sector is the rare part of the economy where many Black workers thrive. Starting in the 1940s, the civil rights movement won a series of protections against the discrimination that froze so many Black people out of the formal economy, such as federal affirmative action policies and government offices to investigate racist hiring and promotion practices. Public sector workers are also more likely to have strong unions to advocate for them when other anti-discrimination measures fail.
Black government employees experience less wage inequality than those in the private sector, and more career stability. Public sector opportunities are especially critical for Black women. A whopping 48% of all working Black women are employed in the industries — education, health services and public administration — that compose most of the public sector.
“It was a place that was available to them when the door to the private sector was slammed shut,” Naomi Walker, the director of a network of progressive research and advocacy organizations for the Economic Policy Institute, explained. “[So] it has a huge, huge impact on them whenever the public sector experiences the large cuts we’re seeing now.”
A failure to restore these kinds of jobs can hold back the entire economy.
By some measures, the federal government’s failure to give state and local governments adequate relief during the Great Recession prolonged the country’s jobs crisis by an additional four years — which is unusual. In other recessions, the public sector has tended to bounce back as fast or faster than the private sector. One reason is that economic crises make government services more critical, not less. Plus, “In the private sector, companies go out of business,” said Christian Weller, a public policy professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “That’s just not the case with the public sector.”
It was a place that was available to them when the door to the private sector was slammed shut. Naomi Walker, director of advocacy organizations for the Economic Policy Institute
What made the Great Recession so destructive was the ferocity with which conservatives leveraged the country’s financial pain to pass austerity measures and attack the public workforce and their unions. Weller and others hope that the coronavirus pandemic provokes the opposite response: a much deeper appreciation for what the government can and ought to be responsible for. Many parts of the country have suffered extreme consequences from having a frail public health system and a chronically underfunded system of public education.
“The message for the past decade was, the government has been an impediment to you having nice things,” Walker said. Coming out of the pandemic, “I think common sense would dictate, actually, we need a strong government to be economically safe, to be protected.”
Walker advocates for progressive tax code changes to give states more revenue sources that aren’t so vulnerable to economic headwinds. Several states have passed or are pursuing a “millionaires tax” on the ultra-wealthy, who made out financially fine during the pandemic.
Other advocates are demanding changes to address the Black unemployment crisis that long preceded the pandemic. Public sector work is great, said Bailey, but it’s not a remedy for the racism facing Black workers in the broader economy.
“As the job market heals, it’s not a given that Black workers will share in that recovery,” said Bailey. Black and Latino workers are often the first fired, last hired in a recession.
“We need to provide genuine pathways for Black workers to be in the private sector,” she said. “What workforce development has often looked like in this country is job training. But the reality is, folks are trained, folks are skilled, folks are ready to work. What we’re missing is the commitment to actually placing them in jobs.”