Report: Black Workers Nearly Three Times More Likely to be Unemployed in Louisiana

Members of the New Orleans Hospitality Workers Alliance hold a press conference on the steps of City Hall. Photo by Jenn Bentley

Throughout the pandemic, unemployment has been a consistent concern, particularly in Louisiana. The state is heavily reliant on the hospitality industry, especially in New Orleans. Around 16 percent of the city’s workers are employed in the hospitality industry, which has been hardest-hit by pandemic safety closures.

A new report by Step Up Louisiana analyzing the economic impact of the pandemic on Louisiana’s workers found that similarly to the early health impact, the economic impact has disproportionately affected Black workers. In Louisiana, Black workers are nearly three times more likely to be unemployed than White workers. To make matters worse, these workers are usually lower-wage workers making less than $27,000 per year. In Louisiana employment rates for low-wage workers have fallen 19.1 percent since February of 2020, while higher-wage employment only fell 0.1 percent. In New Orleans, the numbers were even worse: as of Nov. 2020, Orleans Parish employment rates for low-wage workers was down 25 percent from pre-pandemic levels.

Louisiana has a remarkably low unemployment benefit (between $180-$210 per week) – in fact, it is the lowest in the nation, leaving many struggling to meet their basic needs. According to Census data, 1 in 5 people in Louisiana are going hungry – twice the number nationally.

“I couldn’t afford my car insurance anymore, and I had to make a lot of sacrifices, either paying for the light bill, paying for the water bill,” said Step Up Louisiana and UNITE HERE member Montrell McGraw. “We have the right to live comfortably and provide for our families. We shouldn’t have to worry about how we are going to pay our bills or feed our children during this pandemic.”

However, it’s the racial implications that are most concerning. In their report, Step Up Louisiana found that while 30 percent of Louisiana’s workforce is Black, they make up 49.5 percent of unemployment insurance claimants. Across the state, Black workers have seen an unemployment rate nearly double that of White workers.

“It’s racial discrimination,” said Valerie Wilson, Director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy. “We see [the disparity] at different age cohorts, we see it all across the country, we see it at every level of education.”

The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Louisiana’s Black and low-income workers needs federal help, Step Up Louisiana’s report says.

“With the lowest average weekly benefit in the country, Louisiana’s unemployment system is exacerbating racial and gender inequality. Our state, and New Orleans in particular, is disproportionately reliant on the tourism and hospitality sector which has been profoundly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and will continue to suffer in future recessions.” The group makes a number of policy recommendations, including:

  • Increasing the state maximum benefit by at least $100 per week to put Louisiana in line with regional averages (TX maximum is $535, AR is $451)
  • Improve access to unemployment benefits by lowering phone wait times for help to a maximum of 45 minutes, increasing the income disregard to allow workers to work part-time without losing their insurance, and expanding eligibility to include gig economy workers, migrant workers, and low-paid educational contract employees
  • Fund unemployment navigator programs through community organizations to improve access

“As we build toward a more equitable federalized system, in the spirit of harm reduction, Step Up Louisiana has concluded that there are concrete policy changes at every level of government in the interim that can improve the lives of unemployed people and the economy of our state,” the report says.

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