A few weeks after the pandemic hit in 2020, Clover Hines got laid off from her job styling hair at a North Philadelphia salon.
“I was very depressed,” said Hines, who proceeded to apply for some 300 jobs, with no luck. A cockroach infestation invaded her building and took over her bedroom, but she had no money for a new apartment.
Then, last year, everything changed. Hines, 42, got hired as a medical records analyst at United Healthcare Group. The remote job pays almost $24 an hour, with $700 monthly bonuses and health care benefits. She moved into a new studio, secured with help from her mom, and began buying furniture. She made salmon and lamb chops for dinner instead of Cup Noodles.
“I couldn’t do any of this before,” said Hines, who even splurged to see Janet Jackson perform in Atlantic City. “I feel more settled, more at ease with the future.”
Three years after the pandemic, Black workers like Hines — women, in particular — are benefiting from an incredibly strong labor market that has created some of the broadest and most significant opportunities for career changes in decades. Black workers have found better-paying jobs with benefits and professional and office positions that offer more work-life flexibility — opportunities that help explain why the Black unemployment rate in the United States fell to the lowest point on record in April. The share of prime working-age Black women in the workforce is now far higher than any other group of women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But these historic gains are already giving way to signs of weakness. In May, the Black unemployment rate shot up by nearly a full percentage point. Black workers, along with immigrants and other people of color, have tended to be among the first to lose their jobs in a recession, data suggests, and economists have warned that a recession could happen later this year.
The glaring wage gap between Black women and nearly every other demographic group means that when they lose work, they have less socked away to cushion against a job loss, and the pain is felt more sharply.
“A strong labor market benefits all workers, and so Black workers have certainly benefited from the fact that there are more opportunities available,” said Cecilia Rouse, former chair of President Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers. “What one would hope is that Black workers and Black women in particular will be better protected if and when we see softening in the labor market. That said, historically, Black workers are in a more precarious position.”
In Pennsylvania, Black workers have seen some of the largest gains in employment, with the Black unemployment rate falling by nearly 17 percent since the second quarter of 2020, an Economic Policy Institute analysis found. The Washington Post spoke to nine Black women in Philadelphia about their experiences in the labor market since the pandemic began. While some said they have found more attractive job opportunities than they did before the pandemic, they all expressed concern about their access to good jobs in the years to come. Some said they already see evidence of an impending downturn with friends or family laid off.
“Everybody I know is looking for job,” said Nayirah Johnson, 25, a single mom, who got laid off last summer from her Philadelphia city government job. Johnson is still looking for an office job but in the meantime she started her own business selling acai bowls out of a leased food truck that she parks at a busy intersection. “People can find low-quality jobs, but not high-quality jobs.”
For Black workers, the recovery occurred at a much faster clip after the pandemic than after the Great Recession of 2008 and the 2001 and 1990 recessions, a Washington Post analysis of federal data found. The Black unemployment rate took nearly a decade to recover after the Great Recession, but it took a little more than two years to recover from the covid recession.
The gains have been so strong that this past spring marked the first time that working-age African Americans were just as likely as their White counterparts to hold jobs, according to a key Bureau of Labor Statistics metric, the employment-population ratio. This closure of a racial employment gap has been fueled by historic employment gains for African American women, even as Black men lost jobs.
Many Black women have found jobs in health care, child care and government, where they were already strongly represented. With a wave of retirements contributing to a worker shortage, employers in these industries have begun to compete aggressively, giving Black women leverage to negotiate up into new, better-paying jobs.
Katreesa Alexander, a 29-year-old single mom in Northeast Philadelphia, was taking orders at a KFC drive-through for roughly $8.50 an hour when Philadelphia went into lockdown in 2020. She couldn’t find affordable child care for her 7-year-old son and had to borrow money for the $5 bus and subway to commute to work. Alexander quit her job and spent the next two years of the pandemic scraping by. She braided hair, babysat and delivered groceries on gig apps. “Anything I could find to make a quick buck,” said Alexander, who took out cash advance loans.
Last summer, Alexander landed a union nurses’ assistant position at a short-term rehab center where she makes more than double her earnings at KFC. She has since moved out of her family’s house into a room in a shared apartment. She has money to take the bus when she wants and to buy her son video games. She has health and life insurance, sick days and a retirement plan for the first time.
“I never thought about any of this before I became a CNA and joined the union,” Alexander said.
Economists say that the increased availability of remote work has also played a role in drawing more Black women into the labor force. While more than half of African Americans live in the South, they can now apply to companies based in faraway cities, such as Seattle and San Francisco. Research suggests that working from home is particularly attractive to working mothers who may struggle to find affordable child care, as well as to people of color who often face microaggressions at work.
Women applied to remote jobs at a rate of 4 to 6 percent higher than men in 2022, according to data from the employment site LinkedIn. The share of women applying to remote jobs jumped by more than 25 percent between 2019 and 2022 — and even more so for Black and Latina women.
“We know that offering remote work can be beneficial for women and women of color,” said Karin Kimbrough, chief economist at LinkedIn. “For companies who are looking to be more equitable and inclusive, remote work can help them do that.”
Generally, the percentage of Black workers in professional and business services, including law, engineering and accounting, has grown since 2019, according to an analysis from the White House Council of Economic Advisers.
Hines, the analyst at United Healthcare Group, said she applied only to remote jobs after she got laid off the from the hair salon because of fatigue and pain she experiences from sickle cell disease. Before covid, commuting zapped her energy. But working from home, she can take a power nap during her lunch break.
“I don’t have to come home and be tired,” Hines said. “I have energy after work, and I can spend time cooking.”
Despite the growth in new career opportunities, a number of Black women in Philadelphia are still struggling to find jobs, and they worry about their prospects if the economy sours.
Between April and May, some 209,000 Black workers lost jobs, according to the Labor Department. At the same time, unemployment rose for other workers who tend to be marginalized — including disabled workers and those without high school and college diplomas — a sign of additional weakening in the labor market.
A large body of research suggests that people of color are the first to lose their jobs in economic downturns and the last to be rehired. Research also shows that Black workers in particular lose their jobs ahead of other racial groups.
“We know it will be painful because we’ve seen it before,” said Janelle Jones, a former Labor Department economist. “Three years of gains is not setting someone up for a lifetime of economic stability.”
For Lauren Rutherford, a mother of two in North Philadelphia, getting a job as director of an after-school program last year had been a dream come true. It allowed her to rent a five-bedroom house on a leafy street in Philadelphia’s East Germantown. She had been making $41,500 a year, the most she had ever earned.
But Rutherford was fired in March and spent her 39th birthday in May sweating over bills. (Her former employer did not return a request for comment). Birthday dinner was sloppy Joes, thrown together with the remaining half of a $15 family pack of ground beef bought earlier in the week. The refrigerator had broken down months before, and everything was being stored in the freezer.
Her son’s high school graduation was just days away. She needed $350 for his senior graduation trip; $109 for a cap and gown; $79 for a yearbook; $230 for applications to state colleges.
“It’s been hell. I’m not going to lie,” she said, adding that she had gone from applying only for remote jobs to seeking any desk job.
Rutherford has lupus and sickle cell anemia, which makes her legs and feet swell if she stands for long periods — though she did it for over two decades as a nurse and home health aide.
In the meantime, she’s making tough choices to stretch unemployment and food stamps. She sold her Jeep Wrangler for $2,100 to cover March rent.
As for whether she’s noticed any easing in the labor market post-pandemic, Rutherford said, “I’m not living that existence. A lot of people I know right now are not.”