In early 2020, Kyra Hahn was making her living employing a time-tested strategy in the African American community. The Denver native had found a job in the public sector – as a youth services librarian in Portland, Oregon.
Then Covid-19 struck. Ms Hahn’s work life became ‘chaotic’ as she faced rapidly changing safety briefs, a last minute move from her branch and finally the news in August that her job was shrinking. be removed as its library system responded to the pandemic. The following month, after weeks of union negotiations, she arranged for a voluntary layoff.
“I had this very delicate financial balance where I was able to maintain all my living expenses in Portland,” said Ms. Hahn, a 47-year-old woman who identifies as African-American and Korean-American. “But it depended on whether nothing was wrong.”
Ms Hahn has returned to Denver to determine her next move and her misfortune highlights the heavy toll the pandemic is taking on African-American workers in the United States, a group that has entered the crisis with an unemployment rate of 3 , 9 points higher than the national average. .
Black Americans are hit hard because many are employed in the public sector, a legacy of anti-discrimination laws from the civil rights era that opened government jobs to African Americans and made them desirable ever since. Nearly one in six black workers in America had a job in the public sector in 2019, when they made up just 12% of the workforce.
However, the outlook for public sector employment in the United States is poor and deteriorating. The economic downturn triggered by the pandemic has lowered tax revenues, forcing local governments to cut staff at schools, police stations, transit systems, libraries, town halls and state houses.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 130,000 state and local government officials were laid off in October, bringing the total number of jobs lost since February to nearly 1.4 million, nearly double the 750,000 employees. in the five years since the great decade of the last decade. Recession.
With no federal relief in sight, state and local governments expect their combined revenues to fall 5.5% in 2020 – a shortfall of $ 155 billion that will likely increase next year, according to the Brookings Institution.
Due to the obligation to balance their budgets by the end of the year, these governments will have to reduce their spending further. In New York City, the Metropolitan Transportation Agency said it may have to cut 8,000 jobs unless it receives billions more in federal aid.
“This is a very significant loss and unfortunately I think it could be the tip of the iceberg, because a lot of these budget cuts have not yet fully manifested themselves,” said economist David Cooper of the Economic Policy Institute, a leftist thinker. tank. “There are a lot of job losses that will potentially take a heavy toll on workers of color.”
The debate over federal stimulus legislation in Washington has become bogged down over whether to provide aid to state and local governments. Republicans have opposed such measures, arguing that they aim to bail out poorly managed democratic jurisdictions. Democrats countered that relief is needed to maintain services and save jobs.
“You’re going to see hundreds of thousands of police, firefighters, first responders, mental health clinics, you’re going to see them go bankrupt,” President-elect Joe Biden warned in a speech Monday. .
With Washington deadlocked, many workers of color must simultaneously face the specter of economic hardship and the dangers posed by the coronavirus.
Brandon Summers, 33, a black Nevada resident who works as a teacher and musician, said he will never forget the shock he experienced in March when his opportunities as a substitute at Las Vegas schools and hip-hop violinist in the city both disappeared.
“I wasn’t too worried for the first month, but when a month turned into six months with no income, no job, it got really troubling,” he said. “I had never applied for unemployment in my life and for the first time I asked for help saying, ‘I need food. I need money. I need help. I can’t pay my rent. ”
Mr Summers finally found work in September as a $ 120-per-day substitute for a college orchestra teacher, but even though there is a possibility of an extension until May, he plans to try his luck in the private sector. “I appreciate stability and predictable income,” Summers said, “but it’s an extremely insulating type of environment.”
Ms. Hahn is not sure what she will do. She had been so drawn to her work in the Oregon Library that she had moved over 1,000 miles from her hometown of Denver. Now that she’s back home, there are nearly two job seekers for every vacancy – and the coronavirus.
“I recognize that I have to survive the Covid pandemic first,” she said. “I have to survive this before I can even find a job.”