By Tim Henderson
Black workers with bachelor’s degrees continued to lose jobs in May, even as the relaxing of COVID-19 restrictions led to job gains for white professionals.
White college graduates gained almost 900,000 jobs in the first sign of an economic recovery in May compared with April, while their black counterparts lost 200,000 jobs, according to a Stateline analysis of federal employment data.
There could be worse to come as government jobs, a source of middle-class pay for many Black professionals, start to erode as cities and states respond to evaporating tax revenue.
May’s jobs report was widely seen as a success for efforts to loosen coronavirus-related restrictions, with four million jobs added overall and the unemployment rate ticking down from April to May. But the racial disparity was stark.
Black workers with less education gained jobs as restaurants and stores started to reopen, and there continued to be high demand for registered nurses — a job that requires at least an associate degree.
But over all, there was no improvement in the Black unemployment rate, which rose from 16.7% to 16.8%, even as the rates for other groups improved.
Many of the lost jobs for educated Black workers were in tech fields. Black professionals also lost jobs in health care, as many people postponed doctor’s visits and medical procedures to avoid exposure to the coronavirus and to keep hospitals clear for COVID-19 patients.
“Those job categories have become entry-level white-collar jobs, thus having a larger percentage of minorities,” said Mark Dean, an African-American pioneer in personal computers and a professor at the University of Tennessee College of Engineering. Some of the biggest drops were in computer systems design, where Black workers lost 77,000 jobs.
“Many companies have delayed or canceled computer system orders,” Dean said.
White workers lost jobs in some of the same categories, but their losses were a smaller proportion of their overall employment in tech jobs. For instance, white and Black workers lost about 12,000 jobs in computer systems design, but that comprised 27% of Black jobs in the field, compared with 1% of white jobs.
A third of Black business owners are in health care and social services, so trouble in those sectors can have a big impact on educated Black workers, said Andre Perry, a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Black physicians and physician assistants, who need a college degree, were affected. Almost 23,000 Black physicians and 18,000 Black physician assistants lost jobs, according to the Stateline analysis of Current Population Survey data provided by ipums.org at the University of Minnesota. At the same time, white physicians gained about 25,000 jobs.
Black professionals also lost more than 41,000 jobs in health care services, which includes jobs such as nurse practitioners, social workers and diagnostic specialists outside of hospitals or doctor’s offices. Also, Black college graduates lost about 40,000 jobs working for manufacturers of medical equipment and pharmaceuticals.
Health care jobs can be dangerous in the midst of a pandemic, and some of those workers might have chosen to protect their safety by switching jobs or staying home, said Elise Gould, a senior economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute and coauthor of a study on Black workers in the pandemic.
“If somebody feels like they’re in harm’s way, you could imagine someone leaving the job market over that,” Gould said. Also, the sudden explosion of unemployment in the pandemic can itself lead to more discrimination against people of color.
“We have so many workers on the sidelines that employers may use additional discretion in terms of hiring, and you may start to see that discretion affect hiring of Black and Hispanic workers,” Gould said.
“It’s true that a tight labor market is good for any group that would otherwise face discrimination,” said Perry, of Brookings. “But what is considered a tight labor market overall still looks different to Black America.”
Layoffs in the tech industry are troubling because tech firms already had a diversity issue, compounded by high housing prices in Silicon Valley. Juan Gilbert, chairman of the computer science department at the University of Florida, said many of the layoffs have occurred in startups that depend on sales that dropped off in the pandemic.
Black software developers lost more than 36,000 jobs, a decline of more than a third. Their white counterparts lost 14,000 jobs, a 2% decline.
There could be a silver lining, Gilbert said, if those unemployed Black tech workers get picked up by larger companies that are now discovering it’s possible to hire workers from anywhere if they work from home.
“People are having a moment of ‘Aha, I was getting up in the morning and doing my two-hour commute and now I’m getting up in the morning and getting to work,’” Gilbert said.
“A lot of these Silicon Valley companies will say, ‘You know what? We have a diversity issue, and there are people of color who could work remotely.’ They can diversify their ranks and the people don’t have to live there, they can work remotely from the South or the Southeast.”
Black professionals with government jobs in tourism and economic development also experienced disproportionate job losses. Almost 26,000 Black people with those jobs, or 43%, lost them while white job losses totaled 1,000, just a fraction of a percent.
“Cuts in the government sector are a big factor for Black women and men’s access to decent jobs,” said Ariane Hegewisch, a program director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, which also analyzed recent job losses.
Stateline is an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.