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UC-Berkeley Study: Half of Black Employees in Low-Wage Jobs

The unemployment crisis in the Black community has been well documented.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in July that the Black unemployment rate was 8 percent, nearly twice the rate for Whites.

The crisis though, is much larger than unemployment, a new study finds.

More than half of Blacks that have jobs are paid a low salary with no retirement and health benefits, according to a report by the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education released just before Labor Day.

“Typically when people examine the African-American jobs issue, people focus on the question of unemployment,” said Steven Pitts, a labor policy specialist at the center and author of the report. “While we recognize that serious problem, we found there is a secondary important problem that involves low-wage work. There are a lot of Black folk who do have jobs, and there are very high levels of them, who work with very low wages. This is a very serious problem.

The study, “Job Quality and Black Workers: An Examination of the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York,” used data from the 2000 U.S. Census to analyze low-paying jobs among Blacks. Even though it used seven-year- old statistics, Pitts contends that the reports findings are still applicable to 2007.

The Labor Center found that more than half (56.5) percent of the country’s Black workers earn low wages — $12.87 per hour or less. In comparison, 43.9 percent of Whites, 44.6 percent of Asians and a staggering 68.7 percent of Latinos work in low-wage jobs. The report maintains that these figures for Blacks cannot be attributed to part-time employment because more than half (54 percent) of full-time Blacks workers receive low wages.

One of the reasons that so many Blacks receive low wages is because they are concentrated in low-wage industries. Manufacturing, retail trade and health care and social assistance employ about 40 percent of all Black workers, the study found. In retail in particular, 73.3 percent of all the nation’s Blacks (and 69.4 percent of the full timers) in that industry earn low wages.

One 57-year-old security guard from Los Angeles is just one of the many workers in America who is struggling to make a decent living with low wages.

“Eighty percent of my income goes to pay my rent,” says Yemane Asfaw who makes $9.50 per /hour. “The wage is so low that it is almost taking all my monthly income just for rent and I work 40 hours a week. So just paying my rent is a big problem right now.

“And also I travel 15 miles back and forth from my house to work,” he adds. “And it costs a lot of money, especially now with transportation costs going up. I have no medical. If I get sick, I still go to work. If I miss one day of work, I will be in such big trouble and I will be behind in rent, so I am constantly worrying.”

Another major finding of the report is that close of half of the Black workforce are in those industries in which it is likely that the jobs will stay in the United States instead of being off-shored in the new global economy. 

The report provides several recommendations for transforming these low-wage jobs into better positions for the entire American workforce. Unionization is an effective tool to improve job quality, the report states. It further advocates several public policy initiatives including establishing minimum wage, living wage and industry wage laws.

The study also advises the initiation of community benefit agreements that feature local hiring mandates, the return of government subsidies if businesses promises about job creation are not kept and linking workforce and economic development programs.

“Often times when you are trying to address the issue of job quality and job access, people focus on job training,” Pitts says. “But we have to go beyond the question of job training so we can see how we can transform those jobs and improve the quality of work for Black workers and really all workers in this country.”

– Ibram Rogers

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