all work no pay

A Common Theme for Black Women

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos Getty Images

I have been laid off three times. That alone should raise an eyebrow, but — why not? — here’s some additional cause for concern: I have been working full-time for just six years. In other words, I have worked at each of my jobs for an average of only one and a half years before finding myself on the receiving end of a severance package. The impact of the coronavirus triggered layoff No. 3 three last April. Unfortunately, this is a common theme for Black women. Unemployment has been our disproportionate reality since long before the pandemic saw us losing jobs on an even larger scale.

My first layoff happened in June 2016. For the rest of that summer, my nights oscillated between staying up late dancing at some bar and staying up late spiraling over what I had done to suddenly make my source of income disappear. Did an assertive email do me in? Couldn’t be. Full-blown aggressive personalities in some of my still-employed peers went routinely unchecked. Maybe it was hitting my deadlines a little too close for comfort? That didn’t make sense either. “Any way we can get an extension on this?” was practically a canned response for other people at my company. I compared endlessly, searching for a narrative I could control, one I could easily target as the reason for my unemployment. Eventually, I chalked it up to the long-running myth about holding a stable job in media.

I became good at landing on my feet, and it helped that I was hirable from the outset. In each role, I had sharpened my skills and had successful marketing campaigns to show for it. I had worked my way into a predominantly white industry and vibrated with pride as I continued to advance, securing roles at shiny start-ups and noteworthy publishing houses alike. You learn early on that media jobs can be short-lived, so I was a model employee in the hope that it would guarantee stability, volunteering to take on more work when I could, building processes that made teams more efficient, getting ahead of problems before they manifested. And to top it all off, as an ambitious person, I enjoyed it. That’s why, when the later layoffs came around, they felt utterly incongruous with the career identity I had shaped for myself. Why was I the “hard worker,” the “right-hand woman,” the “dedicated employee” if eventually I would still end up without a job?

The truth is that Black workers have been unemployed at higher rates than white workers for decades, and the numbers rise with every economic downturn. During the 2008 recession, Black unemployment peaked at 16.8 percent, while white workers saw an unemployment high of 9.2 percent. The trend continued into the beginning of 2020, with 2.8 percent of white women unemployed, compared with nearly 5 percent of Black women that February. By December, after the pandemic’s effects had taken hold, both of those rates nearly doubled.

When I saw those statistics, I thought back to my three layoffs, trying to pinpoint any clues that might have been a trailer for my short future at the companies. I couldn’t find any. I was, however, reminded of the final interview stages for each position — that somewhat flirty moment when you can tell they want you and they want you to want them back. This is when companies really try to sell you on joining their team, and a bit of shameless peacocking ensues. I had listened to their dedication to hiring Black and brown talent, nodded at their not-small number of employee-resource groups, and smiled at their latest diversity initiatives. All of this would be teed up as employee perks, right next to unlimited vacation and summer Fridays.

Four years ago, I negotiated myself into a sweet role at a legacy media company just as the spotlight was beginning to shine on the culture-shifting editorial work being done at one of its publications. I won’t deny it; it felt great to be a part of this. There I was, swiping in and out of this century-old, historically white establishment, sending emails that would always be answered because of the specific .com that came after the “at” symbol and working my ass completely off. Adding in the fact that I was Black while doing it all, I felt immensely proud.

The industry shifted about two years later, however, and the layoffs began to roll out. Although I was an asset, my presence adding credibility to the company’s claims of diversity and inclusion, my salary was by then far too expensive to maintain in the wake of plans to “restructure.” Of course, I was disappointed when I received the second severance of my career, yet what devastated me was later learning that not only was I one of the few people laid off from my team but that some of my white colleagues were actually brought back a month or so later. This rings true to last December: The number of white women in the labor force grew by more than 200,000 that month, while the number of Black women fell by over 100,000. As the pandemic continues, more white workers than Black workers have been called back to work each month.

The lasting impact that layoffs have on the Black workforce is felt beyond the statistics. It shows up in the job application and at the interview. After you’ve held one position for four years followed by three for two, the mere implications of frequent job loss on a résumé can have a direct influence on how Black potential employees are perceived. Once the dust settled from my first layoff, the experience even damaged how I perceived myself. I still ward off tiny pangs of shame when I see the multiple job stints listed on my résumé, though I know the layoffs weren’t my fault or my choice.

When I found myself unemployed for the third time last April, I wasn’t alone; millions had joined me through COVID-19’s catastrophic impact. But in seeing the latest statistics on Black women’s job losses and drawing from the experience of my two prior layoffs, I found that the answer to my long-held question of “Why?” was clearer than ever: Companies have only scratched the surface when it comes to investing in Black women.

In 2021 and beyond, workplaces have a responsibility to be true to their word by making a real commitment to Black labor, products, and creativity. The methods for doing so already exist and include aligning with meaningful business initiatives like the 15 Percent Pledge and engaging with employee pipelines that actively build more diverse job sectors. MAIP, the internship program that kick-started my own career, is a prime example.

Simply employing Black and brown women should be just the short-term goal — companies must establish new systems that operate in tandem, working to undo the long-term effects of hiring and firing us with the rhythm of a roller coaster. This will no doubt be a more strenuous journey, but ultimately it’s our only hope for an equitable and sustainable workforce for us all. Because if companies really valued Black workers, as they signal in their welcome packages and marketing campaigns, they wouldn’t only value us when business is booming.

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