Unemployment Is Hitting LA's Black Neighborhoods Hard

People stop to look at a George Floyd Memorial Mural painted on a boarded-up business in downtown Los Angeles. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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Unemployment has swept Los Angeles as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving 20.3% of workers in L.A. County out of a job.

But joblessness has climbed much higher in parts of L.A. with large Black populations.

Many Black neighborhoods are now experiencing levels of unemployment that are double — and in some cases triple — the rates seen in L.A.'s predominantly White neighborhoods.


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Experts say Black workers are now confronting an acute version of the unemployment crisis they've always faced.

"The crisis that we're seeing today — the high numbers we're seeing in the Black community, that have really exploded due to COVID — is not a surprise," said Lola Smallwood Cuevas, a researcher with the UCLA Labor Center. "It has been generations in the making."

ONE IN THREE WORKERS NOW UNEMPLOYED IN THE 'BLACK BEVERLY HILLS'

Nationally, unemployment rates declined last month as employers began rehiring their laid-off and furloughed employees.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment among White workers fell from 14.2% in April to 12.4% in May.

But the unemployment rate for Black workers actually increased slightly, from 16.7% to 16.8%.

At the local level, stark disparities also emerge when looking at the latest unemployment numbers in L.A.'s Black neighborhoods. Even higher-income Black communities are reeling from high unemployment.

View Park-Windsor Hills — 80.1% Black with a median household income of $91,542, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — is sometimes called the "Black Beverly Hills."

It now has an unemployment rate of 32.2%, the highest in all of urban Los Angeles.

Unemployment in View Park-Windsor Hills is double that of the actual Beverly Hills, a 77.6% White city with a median household income of $103,403 — and triple the 10.6% unemployment rate in Hermosa Beach, where more than three-quarters of residents are White.

In neighboring Ladera Heights, another affluent community where two-thirds of residents are Black, unemployment sits at 24%.

Joblessness also exceeds the County's overall unemployment rate of 20.3% in other parts of South Los Angeles.

In the unincorporated area of Westmont, where nearly half of residents are Black, 27.1% of workers are now unemployed. In Willowbrook, 27.7% of workers are now unemployed — including Andre Shirley.

'BEING A BLACK MAN IN AMERICA, I CAN'T SHOW THAT ANGER'

A former foster youth who has struggled with homelessness, Shirley found stable work as a Starbucks barista in 2018. But he lost that job shortly into the pandemic.

"It shocked me," he said.

The formal reason Starbucks gave for dismissing Shirley was that he'd been showing up late to work. He said he was a few minutes behind schedule only a couple of times. Otherwise, he said he always came to work early and stayed late when asked.

"It infuriated me," Shirley said of losing his job. "But I understood, being a Black man in America, I can't show that anger or that frustration."

Shirley suspects his managers didn't like him speaking up about the company's policy of allowing police officers inside the store while other customers were kept outside.

"I was vocal on a policy of letting people inside the store when we still didn't have a clear idea what this pandemic was," Shirley said.

Andre Shirley worked at Starbucks until his termination in March. (Courtesy: Andre Shirley)

Shirley said his roommate is immuno-compromised, which made him worry about picking up an infection at work and bringing it home.

In an email to LAist, a Starbucks spokesman said, "We won't speak to private employment matters but we can confirm there were numerous incidents and multiple warnings that made our policies clear."

Shirley has been searching for a new job, without luck. Unemployment benefits have helped cushion the blow. But he worries that long-term unemployment could drain his savings and cause him to fall back into homelessness.

"That is a fear that I wake up to every day — that I do not have secure employment," Shirley said. "It's hard being in that place again after you've worked so hard to not be there."

THE ONLY BLACK COOK IN THE KITCHEN

Trusion Daniels was furloughed from his job as a KFC cook at LAX in March. He remembers being called into the office abruptly along with many of his co-workers to sign separation paperwork from his employer, the airport food service company HMSHost.

"They just said, well, go apply for unemployment and we'll see you when we see you," Daniels said.

At the time he was laid off, Daniels was living with 13 other family members in a home in Hawthorne. That city has a 24.4% Black population and a 23.2% unemployment rate.

Daniels ended up moving to South L.A. after the family's landlord told them to leave so he could sell the house. He's currently receiving unemployment benefits, but he knows that won't last forever.

"My main focus really is to get back to work," Daniels said. "But I want to be able to work in a place where I'm actually getting paid right."

In an emailed statement to LAist, a spokeswoman for HMSHost said, "Due to the sudden and detrimental loss of sales starting in March, we made the difficult decision to furlough the majority of our workforce. HMSHost provided extended health and welfare benefits for our furloughed associates at LAX."

Before starting at KFC, Daniels had worked at a higher-end restaurant. He was the only Black cook on staff.

"I felt the pressure," he said. "It's kind of intimidating when you don't see another face like yours in the kitchen. And everybody is looking at you like, what are you doing here?"

Trusion Daniels was laid off from his job at LAX in March. (Courtesy: Trusion Daniels)

'SLAVERY HAS EVOLVED'

Black unemployment is disproportionately high even during the best of economic times. Just before the coronavirus pandemic triggered widespread business closures and layoffs, unemployment in California had been hitting record lows.

But even then, Black workers had persistently high unemployment rates — higher than any other ethnic group in California.

A 2017 UCLA study found that Black workers with a high school degree or less faced unemployment at rates double that of White workers with the same education level.

Smallwood Cuevas, the UCLA researcher and founder of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center, said these disparities are rooted in centuries of American history.

"Slavery has evolved into an economy that does not value Black workers or Black lives," she said.

After slavery, Black workers were excluded from wide swaths of the job market due to laws enforcing racial segregation. Smallwood Cuevas said it wasn't until after the civil rights movement that many Black workers in L.A. started to find their way into middle-class jobs.

In the 1970s, manufacturing was the top employer for Black workers in L.A. By 1980, nearly one in five Black workers in L.A. had a job in manufacturing. Many belonged to unions and earned decent wages.

At the same time, other Black workers in L.A. were finding stable, good-paying jobs as social workers.

Then, L.A.'s factories were moved overseas and government budgets were slashed, leaving many Black workers out of a job.

"Just as those opportunities were becoming available, the economy completely restructured," Smallwood Cuevas said.

HOW LA'S ECONOMY LEFT BEHIND BLACK WORKERS

As L.A.'s economy shifted, many Black workers moved out of L.A. The County's population was 13% Black in the 1980s. Today, it's 8%.

Others stayed and took low-wage service jobs. According to a recent UC Berkeley Labor Center analysis, 48% of black workers in California are now employed in a front-line job deemed "essential." This category includes food prep workers, personal care aides and material movers.

Smallwood Cuevas said L.A.'s economy left black workers behind, and local governments responded by heavily policing their communities — an issue at the center of recent nationwide protests.

"We must develop an economic solution to these conditions," she said. "Not simply a narrow focus on police reform, but a total reexamination of our economic structure to deal with the poverty which is really the root cause of what we're seeing play out on the streets today."

High levels of incarceration have also prevented some Black workers from gaining stable employment. In California, 28.5% of male prisoners are Black, even though only 5.6% of California's adult male residents are Black.

Thomas Prichard was released from prison last year after serving a six-year sentence for burglary. He has been incarcerated off and on since a childhood stint in juvenile hall.

After the coronavirus struck, Prichard lost work on a political campaign, and his hours were cut in a program that puts parolees to work for CalTrans. He said staying out of trouble can be hard when steady work isn't available.

"It's as if you're saying there's no second chance in America," Prichard said. "I come home and I feel as if I'm still in prison."

CALLS TO INVEST IN BLACK WORKERS

In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and other Black people across the country, protesters have called for defunding police departments and shifting funds toward services for disadvantaged communities.

"There's a real opportunity on the table right now for cities to say that healing and taking care of the people in the city is a priority," said Janel Bailey, co-director of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center.

Bailey said budget cuts from police departments could be redirected toward other public sector jobs, a field where Black workers have historically done well.

A recent UCLA Labor Center study found that Black workers in the public sector earn 46% more than their counterparts in the private sector, and are more likely to own a home.

"We really need to look into equitable hiring programs that will bring Black workers up to speed with other workers," Bailey said. "We can do that via the public sector."

L.A.'s city council is now considering up to $150 million in cuts to the Los Angeles Police Department.

Councilmembers plan to shift money toward programs supporting communities of color, though details are still to come. The cuts would be a relatively small fraction of the LAPD's $3.1 billion annual budget. Many activists have called for deeper cuts.

Protesters march through Hollywood on Sunday, June 7. (Chava Sanchez/ LAist)

DECADES LATER, LITTLE CHANGE

Andre Shirley, the former Starbucks barista, has attended a number of protests. He has also been reflecting on the 1968 report from the Kerner Commission, convened by President Lyndon B. Johnon after civil disorder erupted in cities across America, including Watts in 1965.

The report concluded the unrest was fueled in part by, "Pervasive discrimination and segregation in employment, educa­tion and housing, which have resulted in the continuing exclu­sion of great numbers of Negroes from the benefits of economic progress."

According to the report, Black workers at the time earned 30% less than Whites on average. And they were twice as likely to live in poverty.

Today, the wage gap between median-income White and Black workers has narrowed only slightly. Black Californians are still nearly twice as likely as Whites to live in poverty, according to U.S. Census data.

The Kerner Commission's final report came out more than half a century ago. But Shirley said, "It literally describes what we're seeing today. It's disheartening to know that in 2020, we're facing the same exact issues."

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