Why Black Workers in NYC Are Unemployed at Critical Levels — and What Can Be Done
The Black jobless rate of 12.2% is nine times the white unemployment level, a far wider gap than elsewhere in the U.S.
When his family moved back to Brooklyn from Long Island, Cayson Bryant began looking for a retail or restaurant job, leveraging his two years of experience at BJ’s as a deli clerk. Bryant, 21, applied to everything from Bed Bath and Beyond to local restaurants, but for months he couldn’t find anything.
“I was getting so frustrated because straight out of high school, I was used to working 40 hours a week,” Bryant said. “So that period was hard, I needed to find something to do with my time and I needed to work for income. It was like a flurry of emotions.”
Bryant strengthened his applications with community service jobs and used a professional service to edit his resume. Eight months later, after completing a technical training program through the Henry Street Settlement, a nonprofit on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he found work as a part-time building automation technician. But he still wants full-time work.
Bryant is one of almost 100,000 Black New Yorkers struggling through a persistent and unusual unemployment crisis.
A little more than a year ago, as the city’s recovery from the pandemic began to accelerate, the Black unemployment rate in the city was still high at 15%.
Today, even as the city nears a complete recovery from the pandemic recession, the number is 12.2% compared with a white worker rate of 1.3%. It is also nearly double the Hispanic rate, according to an analysis by economist James Parrott at The New School.
Meanwhile the national Black jobless rate in May slid to 4.7%, the lowest on record and the narrowest gap with white workers ever. That momentum is reflected in fast-growing cities like Miami where Black workers are making strong gains.
“Certain parts of the country have been scarred more by the recessions than others. Certain industries have a harder time than others, and there are geographically different concentrations,” said economist Claudia Sahm, who served on the White House Council of Economic Advisors and the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. “What you’re seeing is the recovery is of different strength and of different length in these different parts of the country.”
After tracking the trend for more than a year, economists and other experts agree on the causes for New York’s high Black unemployment rate, with an increasing emphasis on how the outmigration of working-age Black residents from the city is changing the demographics of who continues to live in New York. While the Adams administration insists it is focused on the problem, outside observers are not so sure.
“I think there are a lot of initiatives and a lot of efforts spinning around one another and not getting to the root cause,” said Melva Miller, chief executive of the Association for a Better New York, a civic organization.
The sources of the disparity begin with institutional racism, especially against Black men, Miller said. Borough presidents Donovan Richards of Queens and Vanessa Gibson of The Bronx, both of whom are Black, echoed that view in an ABNY report earlier this year.
New York City’s delay in allowing industries employing a large number of Black workers to reopen after COVID shutdowns, including hospitality and retail, also plays a part.
Jobs that require face-to-face contact have not recovered to pre-pandemic levels. According to a study by the New York Federal Reserve, the retail trade is still down 11%, with leisure and hospitality trailing 8% over the same time period. White-collar jobs, like business, information and finance, have all seen gains of 2%.
The latest wrinkle is the phase-out of jobs that grew during the height of COVID. During the pandemic there were new opportunities, as sanitation and cleaning services staffed up and the city implemented a widespread public testing program, said Connie Mendez, senior director of employment services at Henry Street Settlement.
“The people that were working in these community-based programs — like COVID testers that you saw outside in the street — were people from the community,” Mendez said.
Increasing attention is being paid to the flight of Black New Yorkers, whose population has declined by 9% over two decades, according to the latest census data. It is not the lowest-income workers or the unemployed who are leaving, but rather middle-class families who don’t benefit from the social safety net, but still struggle to make ends meet, according to Zulema Blair, chair of the public administration department at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn who studies the city’s changing Black population.
“You have an apartment, you have rent, or you have a mortgage, you have transportation costs. You have a lot of different bills, so the dollar just is not stretching,” said Blair. “And for low-income individuals, I wouldn’t say they’re better off, but I would say that there are opportunities for them,” due to New York’s social safety net programs, she said.
Miller of ABNY sees her longtime neighbors packing up and moving out of southeast Queens, known as a bastion of the Black middle class.
“There are the older Black New Yorkers who can sell their homes for a good penny and move elsewhere, and there are younger Black New Yorkers who went to school in the South and came back home and found it isn’t affordable in New York,” she said.
The contrast with fast-growing areas of the South, such as Miami, could not be more striking. The Florida unemployment rate for Black workers is only 4.6%, only twice the overall rate, and most economists say Miami is likely to be in that range.
In contrast to New York, the Miami metro area saw its economic recovery driven by job gains in trade, leisure and hospitality, and transportation industries, all of which reopened much earlier than in New York.
Lynne Hernandez, the South Florida Regional Director at the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said, “In our industry, there’s always certain positions that are always in demand that continue to be in demand and certainly we’ve had a tremendous surge of new operators, domestically, internationally. We’ve just grown exponentially.”
While overall wages are lower there, recent wage increases have been large enough to make living in places that are much less costly than New York more attractive.
Black men saw a median wage increase of 29%, or $4.90 per hour, between 2020 and 2022, according to a study done by Florida International University. In New York City, earnings for Black workers rose 17% between 2021 and 2022.
“Hot labor markets tend to lead to higher employment and higher wages for marginalized workers,” said Alí Bustamante, deputy director of the Roosevelt Institute’s Worker Power and Economic Security Program and former economist at Florida International University.
The administration of Mayor Eric Adams insists that it recognizes the problem and is working hard to fix it.
“The opportunity of the recovery has not been shared equally and we are taking aggressive action to rebuild an equitable economy and address the high unemployment rate among Black New Yorkers,” Adams said in a statement to THE CITY.
The mayor attends virtually all the “Hiring Halls” that his administration is holding, to try to fill vacant local government positions, and where the applicants are primarily people of color, a City Hall spokesperson noted.
In addition, the administration points to its goal to expand the Summer Youth Employment Program to 100,000 participants, about a third of whom are young Black people. It also has expanded CUNY’s 2X tech program to community colleges serving mostly minority students, to prepare them for opportunities in the tech sector.
Still, the numbers are alarming.
“The difference between the unemployment rates for Black non-Hispanic workers and white non-Hispanic workers is at the widest it has been in this century,” said Parrott of the New School