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‘The struggle is real’: Why these Americans are still getting left behind in the recovery

Americans with college degrees fully recovered all pandemic job losses by May, while Americans without college degrees remain 4.5 million jobs below pre-pandemic levels. Black women are still the least recovered.

People attend a job fair at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif. on Sept. 9. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images)
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Millions of Americans have returned to work this year as health risks have subsided, but a full jobs rebound is a long way off, and the recovery so far has largely left behind Black Americans and workers without college degrees.

The job losses for these groups are still worse than anything college-educated Americans ever experienced during the pandemic.

The highly uneven recovery has been driven by long-standing problems in access to the Internet and child care, along with recent economic head winds: Hiring slowed sharply in August, supply chain issues have worsened, inflation remains high and consumer sentiment plunged in August and remains near its pandemic-era low. While September jobs numbers are expected to show some improvement over August, forecasters keep pushing out predictions for a full recovery further and further.

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There were great hopes for a return to almost normal this fall as students flooded back to in-person schooling and federal unemployment benefits halted, but they are not panning out. Repeated covid-19 outbreaks and escalating shortages of key goods have brought a volatile fall.

At this point, 8.4 million Americans are still actively looking for work and another 5 million have given up on job hunting and dropped out of the labor force completely. Those having the hardest time finding jobs are less-educated Americans and Black women of all education levels. Similarly, the Black unemployment rate, at 8.8 percent, remains nearly double the White unemployment rate.

In a telling sign of the disparities, Americans 25 years or older with college degrees fully recovered all their pandemic job losses by May, while similarly aged Americans without college degrees remain 4.6 million jobs below pre-pandemic levels.

Even Black Americans with a bachelor’s or advanced college degree are struggling to regain lost ground during the pandemic. Their unemployment is higher than White high school graduates, a Washington Post analysis shows. But looking across all groups, employment among Black women is the least recovered, with more than 550,000 fewer adult Black women working now than in February 2020.

Michelle Holder, president of the left-leaning Washington Center for Equitable growth, said that to have a truly inclusive recovery, policymakers need to look beyond the usual headline numbers and focus on the most vulnerable groups.

“The caregiving crisis that was exposed during the covid pandemic and the cyclical downturn is very real, particularly at this vulnerable time,” Holder said. “We have a lot of working mothers. And among those working mothers, a disproportionate number are Black and Brown.”

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This is all happening while employers, especially in sectors such as restaurants and hotels, are struggling to find workers. The nation has nearly 11 million job openings, which means on paper there is more than one job opening for every unemployed person in America. In reality, getting millions back to work is complicated. Many jobs are in different locations than the unemployed, or in industries unemployed haven’t worked in before or do not want to work in again.

Interviews conducted with women of color looking for jobs revealed roadblocks. The most frequently mentioned problems include child-care struggles, health concerns, overlooked and ignored online applications, and too many jobs that pay minimum wage or barely above it.

“I wish people understood the struggle is real,” said Jasmine Yates, an African-American in the Houston area who has been looking for work for months. “If someone actually went on Indeed or ZipRecruiter and saw how often they get ghosted or how many hundreds of people apply for one job, they would see that the struggle is real.”

Yates shared example after example of jobs she applied for where she was one of 720 or one of 1,420 people applying to be a receptionist or maintenance worker. One job she applied for publicly listed a pay range of $10 to $16 an hour, but she was later told they would only pay her $9. She did not think that was right.

Yates, 21, is a high school graduate who wants to be an electrician. She has her apprentice license and some experience, but she is finding most companies want workers with at least a year of experience.

“Most places don’t want to hire unless you already have experience,” Yates said. “Someone needs to take that risk and hire someone with no experience and none of them want to do that.”

When the pandemic led to a lack of child care, single mothers like Denise Tyree were left in the lurch, unable to work. (Video: Hadley Green/The Washington Post)

The cost and availability of child care continues to prevent many Americans from returning to work. The Labor Department asked people what is holding them back from working right now: Black men and women are about twice as likely as their White peers to report that they’re unable to look for work because they can’t find child care or because they have other family responsibilities, a Post analysis shows.

The coronavirus has killed more Black Americans than those in any other racial group, according to an analysis by economists Bradley Hardy of Georgetown University and Trevon Logan of Ohio State University. Black Americans lost 2.9 years of life expectancy, while the decrease was 1.2 years among White people, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

While most public and private schools have reopened for in-person education, several mothers described growing trouble with shortages of bus driver and other workers. One woman said she worked a retail job for a month and had to quit, because she cares for her disabled grandchild. There weren’t enough bus drivers to get children home from after-school programs, so she was struggling with child care. She’s now trying to find a job she can work from home.

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Another large barrier is technology: Not just lack of access to computers and the Internet but also job screening software that weeds out people who might have a better chance getting approved by a human screener.

New research by Harvard Business School management professor Joseph Fuller found employers overlook millions of “hidden workers” who would be qualified to do the job, but are eliminated by resume-screening software, because they don’t use the right keywords in their applications or have a gap in their resume.

“Nearly 50 percent of employers say they just exclude a candidate that has bigger than a 6-month gap in their employment history from consideration,” Fuller said. “The algorithms are unforgiving.”

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Librarian Connie Williams has seen this firsthand at the Sonoma County Library in Northern California. She’s seeing a surge in people using library computers to take online tests, such as the one for a food handler’s license, required to apply for many kitchen jobs. Last week, Williams said a man came in desperate for help with Zoom. He had never used it and did not have Internet at home, but he finally had a job interview and it was on Zoom.

“He had no computer access at home whatsoever,” Williams said. “We were able to let him take home a Chromebook and a WiFi hotspot. He gets to keep it for three weeks so he can practice before his Zoom interview.”

Just outside of D.C., SHABACH! Ministries in Prince George’s County, offers career services and emergency assistance. They have seen an uptick in both people seeking free groceries and people looking for training and computer help.

“We find there are more and more seniors coming to our training sessions,” said its president, Cynthia J. Terry. “People who are looking for jobs now are realizing they don’t have the skills necessary for this post-covid era. You really have to have more technical skills than you thought you needed.”

The worker shortages in some industries, especially child care and transportation, are making it hard for people in all kinds of sectors to return to jobs or remain in jobs, creating a ripple effect.

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One unemployed woman told The Post that she was finally hired by a major retailer but has not been able to start work because there is such a long delay in processing background checks, largely because of short staffing.

Terry said parents have been calling and begging for spots. She also seen more problems with workers’ ability to get to jobs, especially after bus routes were cut or reduced during the pandemic. Some workers started relying on Uber and Lyft, and one of Terry’s own staff members is now paying almost double to commute via Uber as prices on the app rise.

Discrimination and biases also seep into the hiring process, holding back employment for workers of color. In the aftermath of the Great Recession more than a decade ago, Black women and those without college degrees often faced the longest climb back to full employment. The pandemic struck soon after Black women had finally returned to their pre-2008 levels of employment and job searching.

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The mass closure of restaurant, stores and travel venues during the pandemic triggered sharp job losses among low-wage workers, especially women of color and Americans without college degrees.

President Biden on Sept. 3 said he hoped to see a higher number of new jobs added this month, and noted the job growth since taking office. (Video: The Washington Post)

Economists predict a return to full employment around late 2022. But the unevenness of the gains so far and the hardships that Black women, in particular, continue to face are a reminder that the nation has to watch carefully in the coming months to ensure certain groups aren’t left behind. Broad national statistics such as the unemployment rate mask the disparities.

Some economists have urged the White House and Federal Reserve that Black unemployment needs to fall before anyone proclaims victory that the nation has fully recovered.

“Across racial and ethnic groups, we saw a big unemployment shock in the worst possible way,” said Hardy, the Georgetown University professor. But, he added, “The unevenness really did widen for Black families and Black workers, in particular.”

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