Read the full brief on the COVID-19 recession’s impact on Black workers here.

The COVID-19 Recession: Unprecedented and Unpredictable

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the U.S. economic system and public health infrastructure. More than one year after the United States recorded its first case of the novel coronavirus, millions of Americans are still struggling. 

Coronavirus case numbers are now extremely high, and because of logistical and sociological challenges, it is unlikely that sufficient numbers of people will be vaccinated to establish herd immunity until the end of the summer. The U.S. economy is slowing down, therefore it seems reasonable to expect that unemployment rates will remain high, if not rise again, over the year. Although we have vaccines, we still need policies focused on mitigating the impact of the recession. 

Black communities have been hit hard by the pandemic and economic fallout. Black Americans suffer higher rates of infection and experience a larger than average share of job losses. Black workers are also overrepresented in low- and middle-wage essential frontline jobs where the risk of contracting the virus is higher. Protecting the health and safety of Black workers will ultimately lead to a stronger economic recovery for the country as a whole. This TMI Brief identifies key policies to protect Black workers.

Read the full brief on the COVID-19 recession’s impact on Black workers here.

Photo by Donell Woodson/Getty Images; Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Image

Protect the Health of Essential Workers

Like all workers, Black workers need the government to follow scientifically grounded public health policies, enact fiscal stimulus measures, and strengthen the safety net for families who are being hurt economically by the COVID-19 recession. Listed below are a series of specific policies needed to address the disproportionate risks and harm faced by Black workers.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, OSHA has issued very few citations despite receiving a large number complaints. Labor advocates and workers have criticized and sued OSHA for its failure to enact aggressive health and safety protections, and for its lack of enforcement. OSHA should enact strong policies to ensure that workers are adequately protected from COVID-19 in the workplace.

When people cannot afford to miss work or pay for health insurance, they are more likely to ignore signs of illness or continue to work when they are sick. Significant shares of Black frontline workers lack health insurance. All essential workers should have paid sick leave and health insurance. If health insurance cannot be provided by their employers, these workers should be granted Medicaid coverage.

The CDC recommends that states make non-healthcare essential workers the second priority group for vaccinations, following healthcare workers. These workers include food workers, grocery workers, USPS workers, public transit workers, and child care workers–all occupations where Black people are overrepresented. States should follow this prioritization.


Public transit is potentially a significant means of transmission of the virus. Black Americans rely more on public transit than any other group, and are more likely to work in public transit. Even as ridership and revenue declines, it is critical that public transit systems reduce crowding and increase sanitation. Given how many essential frontline workers rely on public transit, policymakers must prioritize funding for public transit systems.


The unemployment insurance system was functioning poorly even before the COVID-19 pandemic. The CARES Act significantly improved the unemployment insurance system by increasing benefits and by making it easier for self-employed workers to be covered. This expansion greatly benefitted workers and boosted the economy. Unfortunately, the extended benefits are set to expire in March, but we will likely be facing elevated unemployment rates through the year. Policymakers should maintain the unemployment insurance reforms as long as they are needed and consider permanent reforms  so that unemployment insurance better assists workers and the economy during recessions.

During recessions when they lose tax revenue, state and local governments have to cut their budgets and lay off public sector workers. Job losses in state and local government have continued to increase since this summer. Black workers are overrepresented in the public sector, so the layoffs significantly impact the Black middle class. While state and local governments must tighten their budgets, the federal government can and should borrow and provide more money for these governments to keep workers on the payroll and keep services intact. 

The U.S. Postal Service, where Black workers are also overrepresented, has been struggling financially for years due in no small part to impossible directives from Congress. Congress should provide the funds necessary for the Postal Service’s survival in the short run, and remove its burdensome demands on the Postal Service so that the institution survives in the long run.

How well we respond to the public health and economic challenges of the pandemic will determine the length and depth of the recession and the amount of pain inflicted on Black households. While the specifics of the recession are extraordinary, policymakers already have the tools needed to mitigate the damage the recession will cause to Black workers—if they can put aside partisan politics.

Read the full brief on the COVID-19 recession’s impact on Black workers here.