Workplace benefits and protections are meant to serve as a safety net to catch people when times are tough. Paid time off, unemployment insurance, employer-provided health care, and retirement plans are intended to provide needed economic security. The safety net available to workers in America, though, is full of holes—and those holes are biggest for workers of color. The COVID-19 pandemic and its racially disparate impacts make a long-standing need more urgent than ever: we must reimagine and rebuild the workplace safety net on a foundation of equity that actively seeks to undo centuries of policy and practice that have held workers of color, and especially Black workers, back.
The uneven impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic throw the inadequacy and inequality of our workplace safety net into sharp relief. Black workers, who have long faced disproportionately high unemployment rates and who are overrepresented in the highly impacted food and retail industries, have suffered the economic shocks of the pandemic acutely: as of April, more than half the adult Black population was not working, and re-employment thus far has been primarily among white workers. In the face of such devastating hardship, unemployed Black workers are less likely than unemployed white workers to receive unemployment benefits, and far less likely to have savings to draw from given the massive and persistent racial wealth gap.
Among those still working, Black and Latinx workers, especially women, are disproportionately concentrated in essential frontline jobs, exposed to the virus, often without hazard pay or protective equipment, while also being less likely to have access to paid leave or health insurance than white workers. Though the racial disparities of COVID-19 are devastating, they are not surprising or exceptional. They reflect a quagmire where a safety net should be, a series of obstacles each exacerbating inequalities instead of promoting security.
Race and the Workplace Safety Net
Workplace benefits and protections are entwined with systems of housing, education, policing, and more. All of these systems have been shaped by and have shaped racism in simple and complex ways. Looking backward, two key facets have been especially important to the inequality of today’s safety net: occupational segregation and compensation discrimination.
Slavery and Jim Crow laws concentrated Black workers in the undervalued sectors of agriculture and domestic work, leading to persistent occupational segregation. In the New Deal, when our contemporary safety net was forged, these sectors were explicitly excluded from basic workplace protections, including a minimum wage and the right to organize. Although some provisions were extended to agricultural workers in 1966 and to domestic workers in 1974, these workers, who remain disproportionately Black and Latinx, are yet to be on equal ground as other workers.
Within occupations, compensation discrimination means workers of color earn less while receiving fewer benefits than their white colleagues. Since protections against discrimination and retaliation were introduced in the 1960s, enforcement has been underfunded and a majority of Black workers report experiencing discrimination on the basis of race. The wage gap between Black and white workers has worsened in recent decades, and can only be partially explained by occupational segregation. In addition to the wage gap, workers of color experience a benefits gap, being less likely than white workers to receive health insurance, sponsored retirement savings, or paid leave. The benefits gap is particularly acute for Latinx workers.
The slow patchwork of piecemeal reforms over the last century has left gaping holes in the workplace safety net that persist today, and a complex and inconsistent landscape of work arrangements that facilitates continuing inequalities, largely through de jure and de facto exclusions based on occupation, industry, or work arrangement. A rebuilt, equitable workplace safety net has two pillars: benefits available to workers across occupations and work arrangements, and universal workplace protections, especially the right to organize.
Much of the contemporary safety net is associated with legal classification as an employee, excluding independent contractors from benefits and protections. The misclassification of workers saves employers money while preventing workers from accessing employer-sponsored health care, minimum wage protections, Social Security contributions, and more. The industries in which misclassification is most common, including home care, construction, and trucking, have higher concentrations of Black and/or Latinx workers, lowering these workers’ wages and contributing to the racial wage and benefits gaps. Simplifying and enforcing classification laws is essential.
While addressing misclassification, we also need to extend benefits and protections to all workers, including independent contractors, so that work of any kind meets minimum standards for pay and protections. Universal workplace benefits programs allow people to seamlessly accumulate benefits across multiple jobs and can facilitate benefits access in work arrangements that complicate employer responsibility, like temp-agency and subcontracted jobs, which have a disproportionately high proportion of Black workers paired with prevalent overt racism.
In addition to diversifying the types of work to which benefits are attached, the benefits associated with work are overdue for consideration. We need a set of benefits built from the needs of workers today, which may include care allowances, emergency cash programs, or tuition assistance. When reimagining workplace benefits, the illogical association between employment and health care needs to be severed. Tying the human right of health care to work when Black workers are the last to be hired and the first to be fired puts their lives in jeopardy every day.
In addition to universal benefits, we need strong legal protections for all workers with adequate enforcement. In order for workers to achieve financial security, they need to know they are safe and respected on the job. Anti-discrimination protections need to be expanded to and clarified for all workers, including independent contractors and subcontracted workers. When it comes to racial equity, the right to organize and collectively bargain is especially essential. De-unionization over the past fifty years has contributed to the racial wage gap, especially for women. Current budget crises in state and local governments, which have both high rates of unionization and a relatively high proportion of Black workers, threaten to reduce union membership further. Unionization, in addition to empowering workers, contributes to protections against discrimination and can reduce wage gaps. Repealing “right-to-work” laws, enacting penalties for employers who interfere with unionization efforts, and pursuing new forms of collective bargaining, including sectoral bargaining, can all promote greater racial equality (while holding unions to high standards of justice).
The benefits and protections that make up the workplace safety net are just one aspect of the labor market that needs to be rebuilt in order to move toward an equitable future of work. The occupational segregation that concentrates workers of color in low-paying and undervalued sectors urgently needs to be addressed, both by improving the quality of the jobs in these sectors, and by confronting the hiring discrimination, hostile workplaces, and educational inequalities that limit access to higher-paying jobs.
As we address past injustices, the experiences of those most impacted must be centered while rebuilding the future. Reimagining safety net policy, and every area of policy, also requires reimagining the policymaking process, and confronting the lack of diversity among policymakers and those who inform them, the Aspen Institute included. The steps outlined above offer a starting point, as well as an invitation for further reflection and engagement.
As the country collectively grapples with the coinciding pandemics of COVID-19 and structural racism, we have the opportunity to turn this moment into a turning point, signaling the beginning of a long, necessary, and overdue process of undoing the injustices that have held the nation back.
 Much of the benefits gap can likely be attributed to occupational segregation, though further research is needed to fully understand the relationships between occupation, wages, benefits, and race.
 This approach is aligned with the “Concentric Circle framework” proposed by Tanya Goldman and David Weil, in which certain rights and protections are associated with work itself rather than employment status.