US workers in motion: an assessment of labor’s gains

The news has recently highlighted labor’s growing activism, publishing numerous stories about high quit rates, threatened and actual strikes, and wage gains.  While these stories do capture the anger and determination of workers who have suffered through the pandemic with limited compensation for dramatically increased workloads while watching profits soar, they also paint an overly optimistic picture of the gains being made. And now, the media seems mesmerized by the threat of inflation, with those advocating austerity increasingly given prominent play.  The reality is that the labor movement has a long struggle ahead and it should not be distracted by unwarranted fears of inflation.

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Pandemic economic woes continue, but so do deep structural problems, especially the long-term growth in the share of low wage jobs

Many are understandably alarmed about what the September 4th termination of several special federal pandemic unemployment insurance programs will mean for millions of workers.  Twenty-five states ended their programs months earlier, with government and business leaders claiming that their termination would spur employment and economic activity.  However, several studies have disproved their claims.

One study, based on the experience of 19 of these states, found that for every 8 workers that lost benefits, only one found a new job.  Consumer spending in those states fell by $2 billion, with every lost $1 of benefits leading to a fall in spending of 52 cents.   It is hard to see how anything good can come from the federal government’s willingness to allow these programs to expire nationwide. 

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The failings of our unemployment insurance system are there by design

Our unemployment insurance system has failed the country at a moment of great need.  With tens of millions of workers struggling just to pay rent and buy food, Congress was forced to pass two emergency spending bills, providing one-time stimulus payments, special weekly unemployment insurance payments, and temporary unemployment benefits to those not covered by the system.  And, because of their limited short-term nature, President Biden must now advocate for a third.

The system’s shortcomings have been obvious for some time, but little effort has been made to improve it.  In fact, those shortcomings were baked into the system at the beginning, as President Roosevelt wanted, not by accident.  While we must continue to organize to ensure working people are able to survive the pandemic, we must also start the long process of building popular support for a radical transformation of our unemployment insurance system.  The history of struggle that produced our current system offers some useful lessons.

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The U.S. recovery on pause, December brings new job losses

A meaningful working-class recovery from the recession seems far away.

After seven months of job gains, although diminishing gains to be sure, we are again losing jobs.  As the chart below shows,  the number of jobs fell by 140,000 in December.

We are currently about 9.8 million jobs down from the February 2020 employment peak, having recovered only 55 percent of the jobs lost.  And, as the following chart illustrates, the percentage of jobs lost remains greater, even now after months of job growth, than it was at any point during the Great Recession. 

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America’s labor crisis

We face a multifacited labor crisis. One of the most important aspects of this crisis is the U.S. economy’s diminishing capacity to provide employment. This development is highlighted in the chart below, which shows the trend in civilian employment over the last thirty years.  Civilian employment includes all individuals who worked at least one hour for a wage or salary, or were self- employed, or were working at least 15 unpaid hours in a family business or on a family farm, during the week including the 12th of the month when surveys are taken.

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COVID-19 Economic Crisis Snapshot

 Workers in the United States are in the midst of a punishing COVID-19 economic crisis.  Unfortunately, while a new fiscal spending package and an effective vaccine can bring needed relief, a meaningful sustained economic recovery will require significant structural changes in the operation and orientation of the economy.

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There is a union difference: mortality rates from COVID-19 are lower in unionized nursing homes

We need strong unions, all of us.  Tragically, even during the pandemic, businesses continue to aggressively resist worker attempts at unionization. And recent decisions by the NLRB only add to worker difficulties.

Here is one example of what is at stake: a recently published study of New York State nursing homes found that mortality rates from COVID-19 were 30 percent lower in unionized nursing homes than in facilities without health care worker unions.  By gaining better protection for themselves, unionized workers were also able to better protect the health of those they served.

Although the pandemic makes organizing and solidarity actions more difficult, it is essential that we find effective ways to support worker struggles for strong unions.

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Times remain hard, especially for low-wage workers

The current economic crisis has hit workers hard.  Unemployment rates remain high, with total weekly initial claims for unemployment insurance benefits continuing to grow.  Recent reports of a sharp rise in median earnings for full-time workers appear to complicate the picture.  However, a more detailed examination of worker earnings and employment not only helps to sharpen our understanding of the devastating nature of the current crisis for working people, but makes clear that low wage workers are the hardest hit.

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Racism, COVID-19, and the fight for economic justice

While the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the United States were triggered by recent police murders of unarmed African Americans, they are also helping to encourage popular recognition that racism has a long history with punishing consequences for black people that extend beyond policing.  Among the consequences are enormous disparities between black and white well-being and security.  This post seeks to draw attention to some of these disparities by highlighting black-white trends in unemployment, wages, income, wealth, and security. 

A common refrain during this pandemic is that “We are all in it together.”  Although this is true in the sense that almost all of us find our lives transformed for the worst because of COVID-19, it is also not true in some very important ways.  For example, African Americans are disproportionally dying from the virus.  They account for 22.4 percent of all COVID-19 deaths despite making up only 12.5 percent of the population. 

One reason is that African Americans also disproportionally suffer from serious preexisting health conditions, a lack of health insurance, and inadequate housing, all of which increased their vulnerability to the virus.  Another reason is that black workers are far more likely than white workers to work in “front-line” jobs, especially low-wage ones, forcing them to risk their health and that of their families.  While black workers comprise 11.9 percent of the labor force, they make up 17 percent of all front-line workers.  They represent an even higher percentage in some key front-line industries: 26 percent of public transit workers; 19.3 percent of child care and social service workers; and 18.2 percent of trucking, warehouse and postal service workers.

African Americans have also disproportionately lost jobs during this pandemic.  The black employment to adult population ratio fell from 59.4 percent before the start of the pandemic to a record low of 48.8 percent in April.  Not surprisingly, recent surveys find, as the Washington Post reports, that:

More than 1 in 5 black families now report they often or sometimes do not have enough food — more than three times the rate for white families. Black families are also almost four times as likely as whites to report they missed a mortgage payment during the crisis — numbers that do not bode well for the already low black homeownership rate.

This pandemic has hit African Americans especially hard precisely because they were forced to confront it from a position of economic and social vulnerability as the following trends help to demonstrate.

Unemployment

The Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting separate data on African American unemployment in January 1972.  Since then, as the figure below shows, the African American unemployment rate has largely stayed at or above twice the white unemployment rate. 

As Olugbenga Ajilore explains

Between strides in civil rights legislation, desegregation of government, and increases in educational attainment, employment gaps should have narrowed by now, if not completely closed. Yet as [the figure above] shows, this has not been the case.

Wages

The figure below from an Economic Policy Institute study, shows the black-white wage gap for workers in different earning percentiles, by education level, and regression-adjusted (to control for age, gender, education and regional differences).  As we can see, the wage gap has grown over time regardless of measure. 

Elise Gould summarizes some important take-aways from this study:

The black–white wage gap is smallest at the bottom of the wage distribution, where the minimum wage serves as a wage floor. The largest black–white wage gap as well as the one with the most growth since the Great Recession, is found at the top of the wage distribution, explained in part by the pulling away of top earners generally as well as continued occupational segregation, the disproportionate likelihood for white workers to occupy positions in the highest-wage professions.

It’s clear from the figure that education is not a panacea for closing these wage gaps. Again, this should not be shocking, as increased equality of educational access—as laudable a goal as it is—has been shown to have only small effects on class-based wage inequality, and racial wealth gaps have been almost entirely unmoved by a narrowing of the black–white college attainment gap . . . . And after controlling for age, gender, education, and region, black workers are paid 14.9% less than white workers.

Income

The next figure shows that while median household income has generally stagnated for all races/ethnicities over the period 2000 to 2017, only blacks have suffered an actual decline.  The median income for black households actually fell from $42,348 to $40,258 over this period.  As a consequence, the black-white income gap has grown.  The median black household in 2017 earned just 59 cents for every dollar of income earned by the white median household, down from 65 cents in 2000.

Moreover, as Valerie Wilson, points out, “Based on [Economic Policy Institute] imputed historical income values, 10 years after the start of the Great Recession in 2007, only African American and Asian households have not recovered their pre-recession median income.“  Median household income for African American households fell 1.9 percent or $781 over the period 2007 to 2017.  While the decline was greater for Asian households (3.8 percent), they continued to have the highest median income.

Wealth

The wealth gap between black and white households also remains large.  In 1968, median black household wealth was $6,674 compared with median white household wealth of $70,768.  In 2016, as the figure below shows, it was $13,024 compared with $149,703.

As the Washington Post summarizes:

“The historical data reveal that no progress has been made in reducing income and wealth inequalities between black and white households over the past 70 years,” wrote economists Moritz Kuhn, Moritz Schularick and Ulrike I. Steins in their analysis of U.S. incomes and wealth since World War II.

As of 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, you would have to combine the net worth of 11.5 black households to get the net worth of a typical white U.S. household.

The self-reinforcing nature of racial discrimination is well illustrated in the next figure.  It shows the median household wealth by education level as defined by the education level of the head of household. 

As we see, black median household wealth is below white median household wealth at every education level, with the gap growing with the level of education.  In fact, the median black household headed by someone with an advanced degree has less wealth than the median white household headed by someone with only a high school diploma.  The primary reason for this is that wealth is passed on from generation to generation, and the history of racism has made it difficult for black families to accumulate wealth much less pass it on to future generations. 

Security

The dollar value of household ownership of liquid assets is one measure of economic security.  The greater the value, the easier it is for a household to weather difficult times not to mention unexpected crises, such as today’s pandemic.  And as one might expect in light of the above income and wealth trends, black households have far less security than do white households.

As we can see in the following figure, the median black household held only $8,762 in liquid assets (as defined as the sum of all cash, checking and savings accounts, and directly held stocks, bonds, and mutual funds).  In comparison, the median white household held $49,529 in liquid assets.  And the black-white gap is dramatically larger for households headed by someone with a bachelors degree or higher. 

Hopeful possibilities

The fight against police violence against African Americans, now being advanced in the streets, will eventually have to be expanded and the struggle for racial justice joined to a struggle for economic justice.  Ending the disparities highlighted above will require nothing less than a transformational change in the organization and workings of our economy.

One hopeful sign is the widespread popular support for and growing participation in the Black Lives Matter-led movement that is challenging not only racist policing but the idea of policing itself and is demanding that the country acknowledge and confront its racist past.  Perhaps the ways in which our current economic system has allowed corporations to so quickly shift the dangers and costs of the pandemic on to working people, following years of steady decline in majority working and living conditions, is helping whites better understand the destructive consequences of racism and encouraging this political awakening. 

If so, perhaps we have arrived at a moment where it will be possible to build a multi-racial working class-led movement for structural change that is rooted in and guided by a commitment to achieving economic justice for all people of color. One can only hope that is true for all our sakes.

The economy: we are still in big trouble

The announcement by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that the federal unemployment rate declined to 13.3 percent in May, from 14.7 percent in April, took most analysts by surprise.  The economy added 2.5 million jobs in May, the first increase in employment since February.  Most economists had predicted further job losses and a rise in the unemployment rate to as high as 20 percent.

This employment gain has encouraged some analysts, especially those close to the Trump administration, to proclaim that their predicted V-shaped economic recovery had begun.  But there are strong reasons to believe that the US economy is far from recovery.

Long term trends and the coronavirus

Predictions for a V-shaped recovery rest to a considerable degree on the belief that our current economic collapse was caused by state mandated business closures to battle the coronavirus which unsurprisingly choked off our long expansion.  Now that a growing number of states are ending their forced lockdowns it is only natural that the economy would resume growing.  Certainly, the stock market’s recent rise suggests that many investors agree. 

However, there are many reasons to challenge this upbeat story of impending recovery.  One of the most important is that the pre-coronavirus period of expansion (June 2009 to February 2020), although the longest on record, was also one of the weakest. It was marked by slow growth, weak job creation, deteriorating job quality, declining investment, rising debt, declining life expectancy, and narrowing corporate profit margins. In other words, the economy was heading toward recession even before the start of state mandated lockdowns.  For example, the manufacturing sector spent much of 2019 in recession.   

Another reason is that the downturn in economic activity that marks the start of our current recession predates lockdown orders.  It was driven by health concerns.  As Emily Badger and Alicia Parlapiano explain in their New York Times article, and as illustrated in the following graphic taken from the article:

In the weeks before states around the country issued lockdown orders this spring, Americans were already hunkering down. They were spending less, traveling less, dining out less. Small businesses were already cutting employment. Some were even closing shop.

People were behaving this way — effectively winding down the economy — before the government told them to. And that pattern, apparent in a range of data looking back over the past two months, suggests in the weeks ahead that official pronouncements will have limited power to open the economy back up.

In some states that have already begun that process, like Georgia, South Carolina, Oklahoma and Alaska, the same daily economic data shows only meager signs so far that businesses, workers and consumers have returned to their old routines.

Thus, while some rebound in economic growth is to be expected given the severity of the downturn to this point, it is unlikely that the May employment jump signals the start of a powerful economic recovery.  Weak underlying economic conditions and health worries remain significant obstacles.

In fact, even the optimistic US Congressional Budget Office predicts at best a long, slow recovery.  As Michael Roberts describes:

It now expects US nominal GDP to fall 14.2% in the first half of 2020, from the trend it forecast in January before the COVID-19 pandemic broke. Then it expects the various fiscal and monetary injections by the authorities and the end of the lockdowns to reduce this loss from the January figure to 9.4% by end 2020. The CBO still expects a sort of V-shaped recovery in US GDP in 2021 but does not expect the pre-pandemic crisis trend in US economic growth (already reduced in the Long Depression since 2009) to be reached until 2029 and may not even return to the previous trend growth forecast until after 2030! So there will be a permanent loss of 5.3% in nominal GDP compared to pre-COVID forecasts – $16trn in value lost forever. In real GDP terms, the loss will be about 3% cumulatively, or $8trn in 2019 money.  And this assumes no second wave in the pandemic and no financial collapse as companies go bust.

Depression level unemployment

Although President Trump has celebrated the May employment gains, the fact is we continue to suffer depression level unemployment.  The following figure from the Washington Post provides some historical perspective.  The current official unemployment rate of 13.3 percent is more than a third higher than the highest level of unemployment reached during the Great Recession. 

But even the Bureau of Labor Statistics acknowledges that because of the unique nature of the current crisis the official announced unemployment rate for each of the last three months is flawed.  The unemployment rate is based on household surveys.  For the past three months, in an attempt to better understand the impact of the coronavirus, interviewers were supposed to classify people not working because of the virus as “unemployed on temporary layoff.” However, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics acknowledges, many of those people were incorrectly classified as “employed but absent at work,” which is the classification used when a person isn’t coming to work because of vacation, illness, bad weather, a labor dispute, or other reasons.  People in this latter category are not counted as unemployed.

The BLS has determined that correcting the classification error would boost the official April unemployment rate to 19.7 percent and the May rate to 16.3 percent.  And, it is important to note that this unemployment rate does not include those workers who have stopped looking for work and those who are involuntarily working part-time.  Including them would push the May rate close to 25 percent.  

Stephen Moore, an economic adviser to President Trump, has stated that the May job numbers take “a lot of the wind out of the sails of any phase 4 [stimulus bill] — we don’t need it now. There’s no reason to have a major spending bill. The sense of urgent crisis is very greatly dissipated by the report.”  This is crazy.

Danger signs ahead

There are three reasons to fear that without substantial new federal action May employment gains will be short-lived. 

First, it has been relatively low-wage production and nonsupervisory workers who have suffered the greatest number of job losses.  That has left many businesses relatively top-heavy with managers and high-income professionals. A number of business analysts are now predicting a new wave of layoffs or firings of higher-income and management personal to bring staffing levels back into pre-coronavirus balance.

The following figure shows that almost 90 percent of the jobs lost from mid-February to mid-April were in the six lowest paid supersectors as defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The May employment gains were also in these six sectors.

Economists with Bloomberg Economics are now warning of a second wave of job losses that will include “higher-paid supervisors in sectors where frontline workers were hit first, such as restaurants and hotels. It also includes the knock on-effects to connected industries such as professional services, finance and real estate.”

As Bloomberg explains:

The pandemic isn’t finished with the U.S. labor market, threatening a second wave of job cuts—this time among white-collar workers. . . .

For the analysis, [Bloomberg Economics economists] looked at job losses by sector in March and April—with affected industries dominated by blue-collar, hospitality and production workers—and determined how those layoffs would move to supervisory positions, since management cuts tend to lag the frontline workers.

The economists then took government data on relations between industries to compute the ones most reliant on demand from the most-affected sectors. Combining that information with the hit to employment in the most affected sectors they extrapolated to other jobs at risk, most of which were higher-skilled, white-collar roles.

The second reason to downplay the significance of the May employment gains is that critically important stimulus measures–in particular the one-time grant of $1200 for individuals and the $600 a week additional unemployment benefit (which expires at the end of July)–appear unlikely to be renewed.  If that boost to earnings is withdrawn, economic demand and employment will likely fall again.

As Ben Casselman, writing in the New York Times, points out:

Research routinely finds that unemployment insurance is one of the most effective parts of the safety net, both in cushioning the effects of job loss on families and in lifting the economy. In economists’ parlance, the program is “well targeted” — it goes to people who need the money and who will spend it. Various studies have found that in the last recession, the system helped prevent 1.4 million foreclosures, saved two million jobs and kept five million people out of poverty.

The impact could be greater in this crisis because the program is reaching more people and giving them more money. The government paid $48 billion in benefits in April and has reached $86 billion in May, according to the Treasury Department.

As the following figure shows, almost all workers have suffered significant declines in employment income with low income workers taking the biggest hit.

Yet, the increase in food insecurity has been relatively small, especially for low income workers.

It is, as highlighted in the next figure, the massive individual benefit boosts included in the March stimulus package that has so far kept the decline in employment income from translating into dramatic spikes in food insecurity. If Congress refuses to pass a new stimulus that includes direct aid to the unemployed, the odds are great that the economic recovery will stall and unemployment will grow again.

The last reason for pessimism is the likely further contraction in state and local government spending and, by extension, employment and services, as a result of declining revenue.  State and local government employment fell by 1 million from February to April, and by an additional 600 million in May.  Looking just at state budgets, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates a shortfall in state budgets of $765 billion over fiscal years 2020-22, “much deeper than in the Great Recession of about a decade ago” (see the figure below).

And unfortunately, as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities also notes, the federal government has, up to now, been unwilling to do much to help state governments manage their ballooning deficits:

Federal aid that policymakers provided in earlier COVID-19 packages isn’t nearly enough. Only about $65 billion is readily available to narrow state budget shortfalls. Treasury Department guidance now says that states may use some of the aid in the CARES Act of March to cover payroll costs for public safety and public health workers, but it’s unclear how much of state shortfalls that might cover; existing aid likely won’t cover much more than $100 billion of state shortfalls, leaving nearly $665 billion unaddressed. States hold $75 billion in their rainy-day funds, a historically high amount but far too little to meet the unprecedented challenge they face. And, even if states use all of it to cover their shortfalls, that still leaves them about $600 billion short.

States must balance their budgets every year, even in recessions. Without substantial federal help during this crisis, they very likely will deeply cut areas such as education and health care, lay off teachers and other workers in large numbers, and cancel contracts with many businesses. . . . That would worsen the recession, delay the recovery, and further harm families and communities.

Without a new stimulus measure that also includes support for state and local governments, their forced reduction in spending and cuts in employment can only add to the existing pressures working against recovery.

In sum, the crisis is real.  A new stimulus that included a renewal of special unemployment payments as well as direct support for state and local governments and other critical services like the postal service could help stabilize the economy.  But real progress will require a major effort on the part of the federal government to ensure adequate production of COVID-19 test kits and PPE as well as nationwide testing and contact tracing programs and then, most importantly, a fundamental reorganization of our economy.