Shared from the 8/11/2021 San Francisco Chronicle eEdition

Low-wage workers still facing struggles

Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images

A UC Berkeley Labor Center report found that low-wage workers and workers of color are struggling to find or return to jobs.

It’s a strange time to be looking for a job. Especially in California, which has seen most of the nationwide job gains over the past four months, despite accounting for a fifth of the nation’s new unemployment claims last week.

A data tool from the UC Berkeley Labor Center is tracking the state’s uneven economic recovery, looking at how rolling, pandemic-driven rounds of hiring and firing have affected people from different backgrounds and in different jobs.

The Berkeley report found that many of the people who have left the labor force during the pandemic had a high school education or less, and have remained on the sidelines of the labor market even as some job openings increase and pay ticks up for some lower-wage hourly jobs.

“Part of the unemployment issues faced by lower education workers has to do with the fact that many of them were employed in occupations and industries that were the hardest hit by the pandemic,” particularly in the leisure and hospitality industries, said Enrique Lopezlira, director of the Low-Wage Work Program at the UC Berkeley Labor Center.

“A lot of Californians are reluctant to return to work still,” said Michael Bernick, an attorney with the law firm Duane Morris and a former director of the state’s Employment Development Department.

The reasons for that were varied, Bernick said, ranging from childcare responsibilities to ongoing fear of the virus to expanded federal benefits set to expire next month.

“It’s important to understand that the quality of these jobs is not great,” Lopezlira said, noting many of them carried significant risk of exposure to the virus as the more infectious delta variant has become the dominant strain statewide.

Bernick noted in an email that California accounted for about a fifth of the new regular unemployment claims in the U.S., despite making up less than 12% of the civilian labor force.

The state’s nearly 50,000 new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims under a program for contractors and the self-employed also accounted for half of those filed in the U.S., Bernick said.

The report from UC Berkeley found that more than 30% of people making less than $37,000 annually were unemployed statewide last year during April and May, a number that has only recovered to 20% as of May 2021.

That is in stark contrast to Californians earning more than that each year, whose unemployment numbers have climbed closer to pre-pandemic levels.

Overall the state’s unemployment rate held steady at 7.7% between May and June, according to the latest government figures. The leisure and hospitality industry, hit hardest by the pandemic, led the pack adding more than 40,000 jobs statewide in that period. The industry has added more than 260,000 jobs since June 2020.

The UC Berkeley report also noted that Black and Latino workers faced higher unemployment rates before the pandemic, an issue made worse during over the past year that has been difficult to recover from.

“As the jobless rate for other workers improves, the unemployment rate for Black workers remains high and more than twice the rate of non-Latino White workers,” the report found.

Unemployment rates for Black and Latino Californians stood at about 5% in January of last year and spiked above 15% during the middle of 2020. Those rates stood at 13.5% and 8.9% respectively as of June.

“These industries and occupations hit the hardest tend to hire more women and people of color,” said Lopezlira, making the recovery for those groups more difficult.

That has led to increased economic insecurity for those populations, including one in five Black renters and one out of every seven Latino renters falling behind on payments.

“What’s going to happen when eviction moratoriums end, and what is going to be the longer term consequence for these workers who are struggling to meet needs?” Lopezlira said.

With employers offering a range of perks from increased childcare benefits to better pay, increased caretaking burdens which fall mostly on women are partly to blame for some people not getting back to work.

While the unemployment rate for women has now fallen below that of men, this is largely due to women exiting the labor market, the report found.

“The decline in unemployment is due in part to workers dropping out of the labor market altogether, as opposed to increasing numbers of jobs,” the report noted.

Ongoing school closures and concerns about the mutated delta variant of the coronavirus also appear to be holding some workers back from jumping back into jobs, Bernick said. “More than other states, people are considering, ‘Do I want to go back to what I was doing?’ ”

Chase DiFeliciantonio is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @ChaseDiFelice

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