The unemployment crisis that has left millions of Americans desperate for work for nearly a year is hitting Black older adults and Black-owned businesses especially hard, according to new research.
Since last April, Black adults age 55 and older have been 26 percent more likely than white workers to lose their jobs from month to month, according to a study from Retirement Equity Lab at the New School. Nearly one-third of all unemployed 55-plus Black workers left the workforce permanently in September alone, double the number of unemployed white workers in the same age group.
"The data make it clear that the pandemic recession is a game-changer for older workers, especially older people of color,” said Teresa Ghilarducci, economist and director of the Retirement Equity Lab. “Forced out of the labor market by the pandemic, these workers might never recover."
The gap between unemployment rates for Blacks and whites is a persistent problem nationwide even when the economy is good. But this recession has caused that gap to increase. For example, among the overall population of white older workers, employment dropped 4 percent during the pandemic. But among Black older workers, employment fell by 10 percent. That difference is partially due to the fields in which workers of different races may be concentrated.
"I think it's clear occupational segregation,” says Jhacova Williams, an associate economist at the RAND Corporation. “What you see is Blacks are overrepresented in certain professions, in particular, the health profession, home health care, aides, things of that nature. And when you're looking at older workers, to some extent, they're going to be more segregated to certain jobs, they're going to be limited in resources that they had, and the things that they could do, just because of when they were born, unfortunately. That's the reason why you're really seeing these high unemployment rates for older Black workers."
"During recessions, Black workers are the first ones kicked out and the last ones to be get rehired,” says Michael Papadopoulos, a research associate at the New School. “So, we would expect that the racial gap in unemployment is going to continue in 2021, because that's how it has always been in normal recessions. However, particular to this recession, is that in order for an older worker to confidently go back into the labor force, they will probably need to, they'll probably need to get vaccinated."
And, unfortunately, there is a gap in COVID-19 vaccination rates between Black and white Americans. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data on vaccination rates as of Feb. 16, in the 27 states that report vaccination rates by race, the rate for white people is twice as high as the rate for Blacks (10 percent vs. 5 percent).
"If the vaccination rates between whites and non-whites continue to lag, that will make Black older adults less likely to go back to work,” Ghilarducci says.
Unplanned retirement puts some older adults at risk
Despite the difficulties Black workers face in the job market, Ghilarducci says it's important that they continue to look for new jobs rather than retire. Unplanned early retirement can increase the chances of living in poverty as people outlive their savings or encounter unexpected expenses.