Over the past week, it seemed like nearly every corporation with a public relations team in America, from Amazon to Instacart to Walmart, published a carefully crafted statement condemning systemic racism. Many of them also donated money to charities in the name of building a more just world.
Lots of those corporate statements and gifts are publicity stunts, especially when you consider how these companies have treated their Black employees throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
A new survey from May released Wednesday by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) about working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic confirms that corporate America has treated Black workers categorically worse than white workers during the pandemic. The poll found that Black workers are roughly twice as likely to have been retaliated against by their employer, for among other things, speaking up about health concerns and requesting time off work.
Indeed, many of the same companies calling for racial justice have done a laughable job protecting frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Census Bureau data from the 100 largest cities in the United States found that frontline workers were mostly people of color.) Amazon has fired Black and brown workers who have organized to demand stronger health and safety protections. Thousands of Instacart workers, many of whom are women of color, are still waiting for face masks and hand sanitizer promised months ago. Though New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and others have called the virus “the great equalizer,” COVID-19 has hit Black and brown communities far harder than white ones.
Three out of every four Black workers who took the survey said they showed up to work during the pandemic even though they believed they may have been seriously risking their health or the health of family members. Less than half of white workers said they had done the same.
“Our results suggest that virus transmission in the workplace may be exacerbated by employer repression and that the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black communities may be related to greater exposure of Black workers to repressive workplace environments,” the study’s authors write. NELP is a non-profit think tank that advocates for workplace protections to low wage workers.
In other words, while Black workers at any given worksite tend to be treated worse than their white counterparts, the study’s authors suggest that Black workers, as a whole, tend to work in more repressive environments than white workers.
The higher likelihood of retaliation that Black workers face means fewer of them feel safe reporting concerns or have had their concerns addressed. The survey found that Black workers were more than twice as likely to have unresolved concerns about coronavirus at their workplace than white workers. And 39 percent of those workers reported that they had either raised concerns to their employer and did not receive a satisfactory response or did not out of fear of retaliation. Meanwhile only 18 percent of white workers found themselves in the same position.
This is all to say that if corporate America truly cared about the livelihoods of Black and brown people, they wouldn’t fire workers like Chris Smalls and Bashir Mohamed, two Amazon employees who organized for hazard pay and safety protocols. They wouldn’t end hazard pay in the midst of a pandemic, as Amazon, Whole Foods, Kroger, and Starbucks have done. And they wouldn’t punish workers for requesting time off to reduce exposure to their family members or take care of their kids.
Instead of touting their donations to charities, companies would put their money where their mouth is, which means listening to workers, respecting their rights to organize, and addressing (often costly) concerns.
The NELP survey’s authors recommend a series of legal protections that would improve Black and brown workers ability to speak up for better working conditions. These include whistleblower protections, the right to refuse dangerous work without retaliation, and importantly a ‘just cause’ clause, which requires employers to have a "just cause" for firing an employee. As it stands, US employers can terminate workers at any time without explanation.