COVID Recovery Will Require a Transformed Workforce Development System in the Bay Area

By Aisa Villarosa, Associate Director of Policy and Advocacy, Insight Center for Community Economic Development

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With nearly half of all Californians at high risk of unemployment and the Bay Area anticipating more than 800,000 job losses by May, it is time to unpack the root causes of racial and gender inequities endangering those whose labor is valued in our society, but not their full selves.

In the Bay Area, more than 1 out of every 2 retail and grocery workers cannot take paid sick leave, and women are less likely to get authorized leave than men. Black, Asian, and Latinx households hit especially hard by the virus still log long hours in low-wage positions like personal care, agriculture, and food prep.

Re-imagining a Bay Area Workforce System Grounded in Racial and Gender Equity,” a new report from the Insight Center, examines how women and people of color have made untold contributions across industries, despite being denied basic rights and fair wages due to racism, sexism and xenophobia baked into our workforce policies and practices. These injustices are amplified by the current crisis, and we will need a workforce system designed specifically to meet the needs of marginalized groups in order to have a just and inclusive recovery.

Supported by ReWork the Bay, a collaborative of funders, advocates, workers, and employers housed at The San Francisco Foundation, the report highlights the challenges the Bay Area Workforce system has in meeting the needs of women, people of color, and immigrants. As a result of discriminatory policies reinforced by harmful narratives, many of these workers are forced to live on the edge because of the systems and laws that have continued to devalue them.

Despite reforms like the 8-hour work day, labor victories of the past two centuries heavily benefited white men and deliberately excluded others because of their race and gender. Nineteenth century unions, for example, achieved landmark benefits that left out women and people of color — often crowded, both then and now, into low-wage professions in service, domestic, and agricultural work — from basic rights such as overtime pay and minimum wage.

As the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, it reveals the deep scars of these economic inequities by race and gender. For far too long, the very jobs powering the Bay Area have barely provided enough to keep the lights on and put food on the table, much less weather a health emergency, lay off, or recession. As shown in the report, the region’s most common profession, personal care or caregiving, is 80 percent female, largely done by women of color, and pays a median hourly rate of $11.68 that is well below San Francisco’s minimum wage. The five most common jobs, including retail and food prep, are heavily filled by women and people of color and pay a median annual wage about $90,000 less than other common occupations more frequently taken by white men.

During the Great Recession, the Bay Area launched unprecedented cross-county partnerships that will prove crucial to sharing the data, ideas, and resources needed to with stand and overcome this pandemic. True to the region’s progressive spirit, local stakeholders can take the lead in pushing for systemic change, especially when federal actors may stall or even impede reform. For one, ensuring that undocumented workers — the cornerstone of nearly all essential industries and services — can quickly access all available relief funds should be a top priority in every county. In addition, workforce boards can take a stand, together, in ensuring that the nearly 70,000 personal care aides across the region gain added protection through the passage of a domestic worker bill of rights, the creation of a comprehensive long-term care system, and access to basic savings accounts.

As we brace for uncertainty and loss, applying a racial and gender equity frame to the Bay Area workforce development system can challenge us to learn from a shared past, liberating us to envision a workforce where all are seen and valued for their full, and truly essential, worth.

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