MILWAUKEE — While the COVID-19 vaccine is providing some relief that the pandemic is coming to an end, the return to an economic normal is taking much longer for people of color.
All races faced great struggles during the pandemic. According to the Department of Labor, at its peak in Wisconsin, there were 10.6 times more white people collecting unemployment in June of 2020 compared to June of 2019. Other races also saw large increases, including the Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, clocking in with an astounding 34.2 times more unemployment claims year over year.
Things have gotten significantly better, but not great. As of January, there were only about 1.5 times more white people collecting unemployment compared to January of 2020.
Other ethnic groups are still filing incredibly high numbers of unemployment claims. Comparing January 2020 to January 2021, Hispanic and Latino communities are filing 2.4 times more unemployment claims. African Americans are filing 3.4 times more and AAPI communities are filing 6.9 times more.
“It has made people panic,” Valerie Anderson said. “Panic and pandemic sound a little alike.”
Anderson is a mother of five children, albeit, all but one are grown and living on their own. However, she hasn’t received a paycheck or unemployment benefits since April of 2020.
“When you have a two-paying household, it makes a big difference as compared to going back to one,” Anderson said. “It’s more of a frustration than a struggle.”
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Stories like Anderson’s are all too familiar. She worked in the service industry as a breakfast cook. She was furloughed in March and laid off in April. She’s had issues, like many others, in trying to get unemployment from the state. She’s currently in a waiting game to see if her appeal will go through so she can collect nearly a year’s worth of unemployment.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 23.8 percent of African Americans and 24.2 percent of Hispanic/Latino communities hold service industry jobs compared to just 16 percent of white people. A Gallup COVID-19 Tracking Survey shows it was the industry hit hardest, with 34 percent of service industry employees were laid off, an additional 41 percent have reduced hours, and 43 percent receiving reduced pay.
“These are not new issues,” Alvin Thomas, Assistant Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin - Madison said. “This disparity is historic. COVID-19 just highlighted existing disparities.”
Thomas says the jumps in unemployment do not tell the whole story. While African Americans faced the lowest percentage jump in unemployment claims from June of 2019 to June of 2020, at roughly 4.2 times more claims filed, they have been among the most impacted racial group during the pandemic.
“More than 20 to 30 percent of African Americans are not able to work from home,” Thomas said. “In fact, they were relegated to working in spaces that did not allow them to make that transition.”
Thomas also points to how African Americans fared compared to other groups before the pandemic. He says because African Americans have faced higher rates of unemployment historically, their jump in unemployment claims was not nearly as drastic, since the group was already facing higher unemployment.
“What you might be seeing is some of the existing unemployment rates that were present before COVID,” Thomas said. “While other individuals are now joining the unemployment lines, African Americans and Latino Americans had been inhabiting those unemployment lines. It’s almost like it’s trending towards the mean. If African Americans are generally around that average area, even when there is a significant change, they’re already there. Everybody else has been doing significantly, much better. So when we start seeing a significant downturn, we’ll suddenly see the change.”
While the AAPI community hasn’t faced as large of a disparity in unemployment historically, the pandemic highlighted a dramatic change. At its peak, 34.2 times more AAPI people in Wisconsin were filing for unemployment compared to the same time in 2019. Nationwide, 54 percent of the AAPI community hold management-level jobs, a field that only saw a five percent layoff rate from the pandemic.
“Many of them are holding those same positions that our Black and Hispanic brothers and sisters hold,” Maysee Herr, Executive Director of the Hmong Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce said. “So it’s impacting them. They’re losing their jobs and in the same sort of way.”
Herr referenced an issue the AAPI experiences called the Model Minority Myth. In essence, there is a stereotype around success within the AAPI community that Herr says is simply not the case.
“The myth is that, you know, Asians are smart,” She said. “They’re good in science and math and they’re just simply successful. At the same time, they don’t speak up and they’ll follow the rules.”
Herr called on her own experience during college where a professor expressed to the class that he knew who would do the best on the exam, saying, “that little petite, Asian girl in our class.”
“He was referring to me,” Herr said. “I realized, oh, he’s putting me in that box with all the other Asians.”
Because there is a perception of Asians finding success easily, Herr says the general population does not recognize when they are struggling.
“A lot of times, the AAPI community becomes invisible,” Herr said. “They’re either the ones blamed for something or they become invisible. There’s the stereotype that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are quiet or submissive people. They just put their heads down and work and don’t say a whole lot, so therefore, everything must be ok. That’s very upsetting. I think all of those things have impacted the unemployment rate.”
Herr also credits the increase to general rhetoric spoken about the AAPI community as it relates to COVID-19. With the pandemic having origins in China, Herr says it’s definitely part of the struggle of being AAPI.
“I think what’s been put out there about that has had an impact on the unemployment rate and just in general how the AAPI community has been perceived by the public,” Herr said. “I think all of that has come into play. Absolutely.”
The slower recovery has also elevated concerns of widening racial disparity gaps in pay, employment rates, homeownership rates, and more.
“They’re all going to have to go through quite a few years of trying to catch up with where they were before,” Thomas said.
“They’re already in relatively worse positions or situation right now,” Abdur Chowdhury, Professor Emeritus of Economics at Marquette University said. “I think for the minority community, the recovery will take a little bit longer than the average population.”
Chowdhury says, despite the positive news about the COVID-19 vaccine, the snapback to normal will continue to be slow for marginalized communities.
“It will be early 2022 before we see things going back to the pre-pandemic level,” He said.
But groups in Milwaukee County are taking this as an opportunity to commit even more to their equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts.
“The goal we set remains the same and in place,” Julie Granger, Executive Vice President of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce said. “I think what we’re doing is doubling down on the efforts that will lead us, ultimately, to meet this metric.”
Granger is referring to the MMAC’s Region of Choice effort; a program with 111 local businesses committed to increasing diversity in management positions by 25 percent and general employment by 15 percent by 2025. Granger says, the pandemic hasn’t slowed any of that down.
“The talent crunch happening pre-pandemic is coming back and with a vengeance,” Granger said. “There are going to be many, many openings. The challenge we have in the Milwaukee Region is making sure skills people are gaining are the ones that match openings we have. I’m seeing a lot of studies that show low-level service jobs are not going to come back. We need to do everything we can to upskill and resell the population we have.”
Granger feels this “problem” of having more job openings will require employers to take a look in the mirror at how they operate.
But the Region of Choice isn’t just a commitment by companies. The MMAC has multiple pathways to helping marginalized communities succeed against systemic issues plaguing them.
“It’s not just in the workplace,” Granger said. “Eliminating achievement gaps in education. Without growing the pipeline coming into these roles, we’ll never be able to continue to reach the metrics we have. Also, growing Black and Brown owned businesses. Milwaukee has very few Black and Brown businesses compared to other metros our size. We are looking at innovative partnerships between corporations and companies of color.”
That’s music to Anderson’s ears. She is reevaluating everything because of the pandemic. This mother of five and grandmother of nine says she wants to open her own business so she can be more in control of the outcome, should another crisis like the pandemic hit her family.
It’s something experts feel could be the silver lining of this whole pandemic.
“My hope is, whatever pushes them to that point where they open their businesses, especially those who have always wanted to open their own businesses, that they can do so,” Herr said. “And there are people like our organization that are here to help them be successful at it.”
“This pandemic has been a blessing and a curse,” Anderson said. “The curse is being out of work and not knowing what’s going to happen to you. The blessing has been, a lot of people have tapped into their real gifts and talent and made a way for themselves and did a good job with it.”