Thinking more broadly about how we gather intelligence to inform monetary policy has led the Minneapolis Fed to engage with labor and workforce contacts more intentionally. The new “Worker Experience” section of the Beige Book is informed by the direct conversations we’ve had through those interactions.
This article expands on those conversations and offers a closer view into the challenges faced by hospitality and janitorial workers in the Twin Cities. As reported in our latest Beige Book contribution, these workers have faced unique challenges that have hindered their ability to maintain healthy levels of employment and disproportionately tested their overall well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Out of work or in harm’s way
Measures to halt the spread of the virus put extraordinary strains on restaurants, hotels, event venues, and airports. According to the Opportunity Insights economic tracker, in April of 2020, the leisure and hospitality industry in Minnesota experienced a 55.9 percent decrease in employment compared with January of the same year. Some of those jobs have come back, but as of February 2021, employment in the sector remains nearly 20 percent below economywide employment.
Because of overrepresentation in these occupations, workers of color are being disproportionately affected.
Information shared by a labor organization based on its membership data shows that as of January 2021, major hospitality firms in the Twin Cities area had shed between 40 percent and 90 percent of pre-pandemic jobs. Because of overrepresentation in these occupations, workers of color are being disproportionately affected. Of the 340 workers laid off by a major food and beverage operator in the Twin Cities, 71 percent were Black or African American, and 69 percent of full-time employees furloughed by a major hotel in Minneapolis identified as people of color.
Shocks to the hospitality industry are not the only ones affecting workers of color. With the closure of many stores and with companies asking employees to work from home came a drop in demand for cleaning services. Contacts for a union representing 8,000 workers in the service industry, including janitors, pointed out that the decreased demand for cleaning services resulted in approximately 15 percent of represented workers being laid off and many others working reduced hours. The disproportionate majority of workers in these jobs are also people of color.
Major hospitality firms in the Twin Cities area had shed between 40 percent and 90 percent of pre-pandemic jobs.
Those lucky enough to keep their jobs have encountered other challenges. According to the same union contacts, “The combination of changes in public transportation and the availability of shifts in farther locations has made it difficult for many to work all their shifts and has pushed others to spend around $20 each way on rideshare services.” They added that approximately 80 percent of their membership relies on public transit, and several work more than one shift per day.
The biggest challenge these workers face, however, is the threat of infection. Several janitorial and cleaning services workers have been quarantined since the start of the pandemic, many of them multiple times. A janitorial worker shared that a colleague who was exposed to the virus three times had to be out of work for six weeks. Fortunately, he was able to receive unemployment insurance, “but these cases are the exception and not the rule,” the worker emphasized. “Another co-worker who did not qualify for unemployment was out of work for three months after contracting the virus and being hospitalized and put on a ventilator.”
Immigrant workers face additional challenges
While unemployment insurance has helped many workers stay afloat during the pandemic, receiving benefits may not be an option for many hospitality and janitorial workers.
A nonprofit organization working with immigrant populations reports having received more than 700 calls from people asking for help to apply for unemployment benefits during the pandemic. “The majority of calls we received were in languages other than English,” pointed out a director for the organization. “Language, access to technology, and literacy overall are a barrier for many of the people seeking our services.” The director added that a great number of immigrant workers do not qualify for government assistance and that even those who qualify may be hesitant to apply to avoid a public charge label and jeopardizing their status in the country.
As financial pressures pile up, many of these workers have had to make difficult decisions. Some have continued to work even when they’re sick, heightening the spread of the virus among low-wage workers.
“People need to feel safe and comfortable at home so they can be productive workers. One-size-fits-all solutions don’t work.”
More than one contact observed that it is not uncommon to see more than one immigrant family living under one roof, a practice that has increased over the past few months as stressors have intensified. “More people living in one house from different families means more workers exposed to the virus, a higher number of infections, more quarantine time, less income, and the cycle goes on,” said a social services worker.
On top of experiencing large income reductions, medical costs in cases where one or more family members have fallen sick have put more pressure on their finances. A contact points out that “as the adults in the family become unemployed or get sick, the responsibility of providing for the family increasingly falls on youth,” putting yet more pressure on the future of communities already struggling with a range of inequalities.
Recovery and opportunity
As increased inoculations promise an end to the pandemic, the recovery will be experienced differently by low-income workers of color. Many see the current crisis as an opportunity to elevate disadvantaged job seekers to better-paid employment. “It is an all-hands-on-deck type of opportunity,” said a manufacturer in Minneapolis. “But people need to feel safe and comfortable at home so they can be productive workers. One-size-fits-all solutions don’t work. How people navigate processes is unique to each individual.”