Why Black women struggle to find jobs even as the economy rebounds
In Paterson, New Jersey, the pandemic’s impact on the unemployment numbers is still painful
PATERSON, N.J. — Shalaya Williams was working for a nonprofit agency. But when the pandemic hit, her family needed her at home and she quit.
Aquanda McKenzie didn’t want to leave either of her two jobs as an aide working with students. But when the pandemic shut down schools, she ended up unemployed anyway.
And Ana Otanez was a bookkeeper at a property management company until she came down with the coronavirus and was replaced after missing work.
All three women live in this industrial town of 160,000 in northern New Jersey where the unemployment rate is nearly three times that of the nation’s.
In Paterson and elsewhere, many Black and brown women are finding it difficult to find steady work even as the economy recovers from the pandemic recession. Part of the reason is the role many of them play in the labor market, which disproportionately pigeonholes women of color into low-paying jobs that can’t be done from a laptop on the dining room table.
“Black women and other women of color had higher rates of job loss during the pandemic, higher rates of COVID, higher rates of losing loved ones and also higher rates of leaving the workforce,” Jessica Calarco, a sociology professor at Indiana University, told Andscape.
Calarco said the labor market playing field is uneven for women in general and even more so for Black women and Latinas.
“Other countries have social safety nets,” she told the newsletter Culture Study. “The U.S. has women.”
Or put another way: The U.S. has Black and Hispanic women. They are the nurse’s aides, the school aides, the nursing home workers, the cleaning staff, the restaurant and cafeteria workers who serve as the country’s social safety net.
While the economy rebounds and much of the media is preoccupied with the “Great Resignation,” the plight of these women is drawing attention in Washington.
“There are still challenges in the case of Black women in particular,” said White House deputy economic adviser Bharat Ramamurti. “But we’re really focused on those and want to figure out ways of addressing them because those are folks who often have been left out of some of the gains that we’ve seen in the economy.”
Unemployment in Paterson was at 28.2% in the middle of 2020, higher than at any other time in the past 30 years. It’s down to 10.2% now, yet that’s still way above the New Jersey average of 6.3%.
Paterson has a long history as a manufacturing town, building everything from steam locomotives and aircraft engines to textiles to revolvers. A century ago, more silk was made here than anywhere else in the world. Even today, locals still affectionately refer to Paterson as “Silk City.”
The city, which is 60% Latino and 26% Black, has had its moments in the culture: The Sopranos shot an iconic scene in which two mobsters tossed a drug dealer to his death in the city’s Great Falls. This is the birthplace of rapper Fetty Wap of “Trap Queen” fame. And it’s the setting for Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
Beyond popular culture, though, modern-day Paterson can be a hard place to live, work and feed a family. It has a 26.6% rate of poverty and the fourth-highest rate of shooting victims in the state behind Camden, Trenton and Newark.
As I went around town, multiple people — a security guard, a gas station attendant, a woman I interviewed — all separately warned me to “be careful” or “watch your back.” But while locals keep an eye out for violence, none of them saw the coronavirus pandemic and the upheaval it would bring.
Unemployment shot up by a factor of five in just a few months. For Black and brown women, it was even worse. In general, according to economist Kristen Broady, these women were hit hard by COVID-19, either getting sick themselves or having to care for family members. Many dropped out of the labor force. Then many of them came back looking for work and couldn’t find it right away.
“That says to me that the stimulus money ran out,” said Broady, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor of financial economics at Dillard University. “Their savings ran out.”
Take the case of McKenzie, a 36-year-old single mother of two, who was born and raised in Paterson. McKenzie is back looking for work after being laid off at the height of the recession caused by the pandemic.
McKenzie had a pair of part-time jobs before the pandemic. She was a school bus aide. And she was an aide for students with disabilities. She particularly loved being around the special education kids, teaching them the basics of life such as brushing their teeth, combing their hair and how to stay safe when outdoors.
black women unemployment rate (2020-22)
|*20 years or older||*Labor force statistics from the Current Population Survey||*Data by percent|
“When you care for people, you do it from the heart,” McKenzie told me as we chatted recently at a local McDonald’s. “I know dealing with special needs, they need you there. They show that they need you there. When it’s time for our one-on-one time, they’d get excited.”
But when schools began to go virtual because of the pandemic, McKenzie lost one job and then the other. She said she was receiving $142 a week in state unemployment benefits but didn’t know that the federal government was handing out an additional $600 a week until the final two weeks of that program, so she mostly missed out on those payments.
Short on cash, McKenzie was stressed out.
“I started to get depressed,” she recalled. “I fell into a deep state of depression and thank God it didn’t pull me back too far. I spoke to some good people and they kept me encouraged.”
McKenzie turned to the woman who raised her, her maternal grandmother, for support. McKenzie’s mother is dead. Her parents were teens when she was born.
Then she heard about Kelley Moss-Brown, the founder of Heart of Hannah Women’s Center, a small nonprofit that helps low-income and out-of-work people in and around Paterson with housing needs.
At McKenzie’s lowest point, she told me, Brown not only provided her with a subsidy for rent on a two-bedroom apartment, but she inspired her as a Black woman providing a necessary service to the community.
“She stuck by my side,” said McKenzie, who ended up going back to school for phlebotomy, which involves drawing blood. She now has her sights set on becoming a licensed practical nurse (LPN).
Of the phlebotomy, she said: “I did that because eventually I want to leave the bus and I want to go for LPN. My grandmother, she’s a registered nurse. I have a cousin who is a nurse practitioner. I want to follow their footsteps. They inspire me because I like caring for people.”
McKenzie also is in the process of obtaining a commercial driver’s license, which prompted Brown to advise her not to go in too many career directions.
“Kelley always says you don’t want to be the jack-of-all-trades and the master of nothing,” McKenzie said. “After I start the LPN, that will be my last switch and I’ll only use the CDL and the phlebotomy to have money while I’m in school.”
In hindsight, McKenzie said, she has found a silver lining in her time being unemployed. It allowed her to observe Kaidyn, her 12-year-old son, at school. Zy, her 17-year-old daughter, lives with McKenzie’s grandmother.
“I got to hear him participating in class,” she said. “I didn’t get to experience that before COVID. I would always hear the teacher say that he did good today. But I got to see it for myself, hear it for myself.”
I went to meet Brown at her office on busy Lakeview Avenue in Clifton, New Jersey, just across the border from Paterson.
When I arrived, she was returning from a much-needed weekend respite in Las Vegas with her husband. Brown has a soft voice and warm smile. She’s quick with a laugh. We sat in Heart of Hannah’s sparse storefront headquarters, as Brown sipped coffee while her four part-time employees helped women who came through the front door.
She started her career as a methadone clinic counselor. She opened Heart of Hannah in the early 2000s to help addicted women in Paterson. By 2014, the organization began specializing in assisting families with housing issues.
You could say that the nonprofit ended up in the right place — hardscrabble Paterson — at the right time … during the pandemic. Since the pandemic, Heart of Hannah has subsidized rent for 80 families, including some that were behind up to a full year, according to statistics one of Brown’s staffers gave me.
“The jobs that women of color tend to get don’t pay as well and they have to work long hours,” Brown said. “A lot of the jobs around here tend to be the group homes and the CNAs [certified nursing assistants]. A lot of the women do go to school for medical billing, but it’s hard for them to find jobs.
“My Latino sisters have a better chance than my Black sisters,” she said. “And the reason why is because they’re bilingual. In our community, it’s very difficult to find a job if you’re not bilingual. So that’s another scratch against Black women.”
The experts agree.
“Women of color, in particular, were hard-hit in the recession and during this recovery period for a number of reasons,” said Yana Rodgers, the director for Rutgers University’s Center for Women and Work, whose research looks at employment and the pandemic. “One, they were working in sectors that had larger job losses, especially in entertainment, in health care, in education and in retail.
“We also saw women of color being more exposed to the risks of the pandemic, particularly early on before the vaccines because they were overrepresented among essential workers. So they kept working face to face when other folks were able to work from home.
“Another reason is that communities of color — both Latinx and Black communities — have been harder hit by the virus, by illnesses and even deaths. And that leaves more unpaid work at home and women of color caring for sick family members. And that’s work. It’s unpaid work, but it’s work.”
Ana Otanez, a 33-year-old mother of three, went to Heart of Hannah looking for help paying her rent and ended up with something unexpected — a new job.
Otanez, a Dominican American, said she had lost her job at a Paterson property management firm after a bout with COVID-19 in November 2020.
“I got really sick with COVID for like a month,” she said.
Part of her work entailed evicting tenants who were behind on their rent, which she described as “stressful.” Otanez said most of those in line for eviction were minorities like herself.
She was feeling uneasy about kicking people out on the streets. Plus she said her boss seemed indifferent to her illness. She said he replaced her while she was out sick.
Behind on her own rent, Otanez remembered that people often turned to Heart of Hannah when facing eviction. Now she was in that position. She was living in a two-bedroom apartment with her daughter Kamryn, 12, and two sons Ayden, 10, and Jace, 6. She went to see Brown, who hired her for a 25-hours-a-week job.
“I went from evicting people to helping people stay in their homes,” Otanez said, flashing a big smile.
Many unemployed Black folks in Paterson and elsewhere have decided to start their own businesses. That’s partly how Williams has been keeping her rent paid and food on the table.
Williams, 31, quit her job at a Paterson family intervention agency, where she was a secretary and a driver. She said she enjoyed her work, which involved making sure clients saw their therapists or completed supervised visits.
Once the pandemic hit, she said, she was needed more by her own family.
She lived in a two-family home, with her aunt on the top floor and Williams and her 11-year-old daughter, Janae’, on the first floor. Her daughter’s school had gone to virtual classes, so she was home all day. Williams’ mom had spinal surgery and was recuperating in a care facility, but with the pandemic, Williams said, all the patients were told they had to leave. Williams took her mom into her home.
Around this time, her aunt didn’t want to leave her house, not even to get groceries.
Williams was afraid of catching the virus and endangering her family. She asked her employer, Family Intervention Services, if she could work from home but that request wasn’t accommodated. So she quit.
“There’s not much you can do about it all,” Williams said. “Giving up the job was one of the things I had to do. I didn’t want to get sick and bring it [COVID-19] back home.”
For parts of 2020 and 2021, she received unemployment benefits and three rounds of stimulus money from the government under the coronavirus relief bill. Soon, though, those funds stopped coming in. Williams began thinking of ways to generate income.
When Janae’ asked for some new threads for a school event, she told her daughter they’d make what she needed.
“The outfit she wanted was going to cost me anywhere from $80 to $100,” Williams said. “I told her we’re going to have to make the outfit. She knows how to sew.”
Williams purchased a Cricut crafting machine for $400. She first used the machine to make a design for the new outfit. Then she went into overdrive, starting a crafting business. She would charge people to make designs for hoodies, T-shirts, masks, cups and other items.
Williams promoted her entrepreneurial venture through Facebook and Instagram. She happened to meet Brown, who ordered 100 masks and 20 T-shirts from Williams for a Heart of Hannah event.
But Williams still has to find other ways to support herself and Janae’. So she’s been actively working in the gig economy. Like other women interviewed for this story, she said she’s had to have multiple streams of income to blunt the impact of unemployment caused by the pandemic. So she’s delivering food to people.
“Right now,” Williams said during a call, “I’m sitting in a car waiting for Uber Eats to drop in my phone.”