Blacks – especially black women – working in the public sector were disproportionately laid off during the recession, according to a new study by the University of Washington.
The study is being presented this week at a conference of the American Sociological Association. It found that white workers appear to have been better protected from financial shocks to government budgets.
Public-sector jobs have traditionally been a means of economic mobility for African-Americans, and about 1 in 5 black women are public-sector employees. For decades, researchers say, black women found more stability, better pay and managerial opportunities through those jobs than in the private sector.
But Jennifer Laird, a doctoral student at the University of Washington, found that black women were more likely than their white coworkers to lose their jobs.
Laird analyzed survey data used to determine the nation’s unemployment rate. Surveys gathered information from federal as well as state and local employees around the country.
Her study found that the “unemployment gap” between black and white women increased to a high of more than 5 percent between 2008 and 2011. The results surprised her.
“We always thought that the public sector was a protective institution,” Laird said. “You expect to see this in the private sector. The extent, the magnitude of this effect was surprising,” she said.
Laird doesn’t know yet why black women were worse hit by the layoffs. She said the rapid pace of government budget shortfalls and subsequent layoffs may have resulted in more discrimination.
“My guess is that it’s harder to enforce equal opportunity regulations when there’s a severe budget crisis and, you know, a lot of pressure to lay off workers,” she said.
By 2013, Laird said public sector employment for black men had rebounded to pre-recession numbers, but black women were even worse off than before the recession. She said her next step is to try to understand why those gaps persist.