Alabama’s failure to invest in public services and past pro-worker laws has long made the state an inhospitable place for low-income communities of color, and these same communities have been hit hardest by the pandemic. Now there is evidence to suggest that frontline workers of color in Alabama may take decades to recover from the COVID-19 crisis.

In a February report, Alabama Arise, a nonprofit coalition that promotes policies to improve the lives of Alabamians with low income, published “The State of Working Alabama 2021.” The report found that the COVID-19 crisis exposed deep racial inequities in Alabama’s economy and social system that left the state unprepared to meet the needs of its people. More specifically, women and people of color on the frontlines of the pandemic disproportionately bore the brunt of those failures and will likely take the longest to recover.

The Adelante Alabama Worker Center, which unites day laborers, domestic workers, and other low-wage and immigrant workers and their families in the Birmingham area, published “Working on the Edge: A Survey of Low-Wage Workers in the Birmingham Area Amid a Global Pandemic” in February. Similarly, the report found that the COVID-19 crisis exposed and exacerbated longstanding inequalities faced by low-wage Black and Latinx workers in Birmingham, and that state officials are failing to protect the health, safety, and survival of these communities.

Prior to the report’s publication, Adelante’s policy and communications director, Resha Swanson, told Prism that many outside of the South are often surprised to learn that labor organizing is happening in Alabama.

Each state in the American South is a right-to-work state, which means it is harder for working people to form unions and collectively bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions. It can be argued that Alabama has taken an extreme anti-worker policy approach as one of only five states with no minimum wage. In 2015, Birmingham created a city minimum wage of $10.10 an hour. Days later, the state passed a new law voiding any attempt by cities in Alabama to raise the minimum wage.

“Reporting often paints the South as passive in the face of oppression, but even though we experience so many barriers, we are actively fighting for workers’ rights,” Swanson said. This is evidenced by the unprecedented organizing happening in Bessemer, where Amazon warehouse workers are fighting to become the company’s first unionized facility.

The anti-union atmosphere in Alabama can make it challenging for organizations to even survey workers, which is why the reports from Alabama Arise and Adelante are groundbreaking. Together, they provide a first-of-their kind snapshot of the conditions facing low-wage workers during an unprecedented crisis that was made all the worse by long standing systemic failures.

Predictable tragedy

Across the state of Alabama, the COVID-19 recession hit vulnerable low-wage workers hard and fast. The same is true across the nation where a web of state and federal policies and laws prioritize the bottom lines of corporations to the overwhelming detriment of the nation’s low-wage workers. Almost always, women and people of color are hardest hit by these failures.

As Prism reported in December, the COVID-19 recession has affected women more than men because women are heavily represented in service jobs that were hit hardest by pandemic closures and restrictions. Between April and October, Latina immigrants consistently experienced the highest rates of unemployment nationwide.

According to Alabama Arise, COVID-19-related job losses hit Alabama’s Black workers nearly twice as hard as all other Alabamians. While Black Alabamians made up 25% of the state’s workforce in 2020, they accounted for 47% of Alabama’s unemployment insurance claimants.

Also aligning with nationwide statistics, front-line workers in Alabama who face greater exposure to COVID-19 are disproportionately women and people of color, and because of barriers to health care, Black and Latinx workers in the state are more likely to have underlying conditions that worsen COVID-19 outcomes.

Early in the pandemic, Latinx Alabamians reported lack of insurance at nearly three times the rate of white residents, and by mid-February 2021, Alabama had the 11th highest COVID-19 death rate in the nation with deaths surpassing 9,200. Black Alabamians accounted for as many as 55.2% of Alabama’s daily COVID-19 deaths, more than double their 26.8% share of the population, according to the report from Alabama Arise.

Jim Carnes, the policy director for Alabama Arise, said he wasn’t surprised by any of the report’s findings.

“We have watched these patterns play out for years and it was a predictable tragedy,” Carnes said. “COVID really took advantage of every weakness in our safety net and overall public policy framework.” It’s not surprising, but it’s a powerful lesson in the price of neglect.”

When Congress passed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) 11 years ago, it gave states the ability to expand Medicaid programs to those with incomes under 138% of the federal poverty line, which translates to just over $17,600 for an individual and $36,000 for a family of four. Alabama was one of 12 states that opted against Medicaid expansion, a majority of which were based in the South. Carnes said the biggest, fastest, and simplest step Alabama could take toward reducing health disparities and helping front-line workers during the pandemic is expanding Medicaid coverage. Currently, more than 300,000 low-income Alabamians have no option for health coverage.

“For years, we have had the second most stringent Medicaid programs for adults in the country; it is restrictive and punitive and it laid the groundwork for what we’re seeing during this crisis,” Carnes said. “Unfortunately, in our state we have not regarded health care as a basic necessity or as a human right because we’ve had leaders here who for generations have used a bootstraps mentality, rather than acknowledging that the responsibility of government is to ensure the basic well-being of every Alabamian.”

‘Working on the edge’

Birmingham, Alabama, was “built on convict leasing, the exploitation of formerly enslaved Black people and their descendants, immigrants and poor white laborers,” according to Adelante’s report. And these are the same communities that have been brutalized by the pandemic and Alabama’s response to it.

“A combination of preemption and racism led to the manifestation of Alabama’s current workers’ rights landscape,” Swanson said.“The Alabama Legislature, corporations, and even municipalities have fought hard to maintain a system of white supremacy through formal legislation and engaging in the active suppression of unionization and workers’ rights through right-to-work laws, lack of enforcement of labor policies, structural racism, and restrictive policies that restrict paid leave and raising local minimum wages.”

“Working on the Edge” convened worker leaders, advocates, and academic researchers to help carry out an in-depth worker survey of over 200 low-wage workers. On average, these workers saw a 6% decrease in wages and a 12% drop in hours worked per week since October 2020. While Latinx respondents averaged the highest hourly pre-pandemic wages at $11.14, they saw the largest percent decrease in wages. White survey respondents saw the second largest decrease in hourly wages. While Black respondents’ average hourly wages only decreased 3%, they averaged the lowest wages both pre- and during the pandemic. Undocumented workers have fared the worst, seeing an 18% decrease in wages since October 2020. Complicating the hardships experienced by Black and Latinx respondents, these workers had nearly two times more individuals financially dependent on them than white respondents.

“Black women and Hispanic-Latinx women bear the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Swanson said. “With limited access to paid or unpaid leave, increased child care burden—especially with many kids out of school, daycares closed and low-wages—we clearly see the way women are being punished and pushed out of the workforce.” These same populations make up the care industry and are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

Front-line workers reported to Adelante that they were forced to ignore health and safety guidelines to perform their jobs—49% said social distancing was neglected, 37% said the use of PPE was neglected, 30% said they were unable to abide by stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders, and 19% reported they were unable to seek medical attention for COVID-19 symptoms. Workers who complained of these conditions were threatened with various forms of abuse and retaliation, including phone calls to the police or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This means that an undocumented front-line worker could be targeted for deportation simply for demanding a safer workplace.

Rethinking ‘essential’ workers

Workers were regularly forced to choose between their health and their livelihoods. Both of the reports’ findings complicate heroic “essential worker” narratives in the media. Despite their designation as “essential,” Adelante reports that these workers are underpaid, disproportionately at risk for and exposed to COVID-19 and lacking access to job-related benefits that promote workplace and public health.

“Our report made it clear that ‘essential’ does not mean valued or protected,” Swanson said. “Our survey and other studies have shown that essential workers, oftentimes disproportionately Black and Latinx, are some of the most susceptible to contracting and dying from COVID-19. These workers also hold occupations where COVID-19 health guideline compliance is extremely low. The fact that many ‘essential workers’ are not paid livable wages tells you that the phrase is more of a sentiment than a reality.”

Carnes said there’s an emerging and valid sense of discomfort around the phrase.

“‘Essential’ is a term of convenience at the moment, but it’s also a value statement. We’ve not earned the right to call these workers essential because we have not backed up the assertion with even the most basic protections the term implies. In popular media these workers are upheld as heroes, but they’re not treated as heroes.”

Alabama Arise and Adelante’s reports issue a series of wide-ranging policy recommendations aimed at lawmakers and other officials, including increasing the minimum wage, implementing hazard pay, expanding Medicaid, investing in support structures like a modernized claims system and affordable broadband technology for low-income and rural communities, renewing the state moratorium on evictions, reversing “harmful legislation” like right-to-work policies, and reinvesting in Black and Latinx communities.

Mutual aid has been on the rise during the pandemic due to systemic failures by state and federal governments. This is especially true in Black and Latinx communities. Carnes said these efforts are beautiful expressions of community care, but these outpourings are also an indication of needs that must be addressed through public policy.

“I don’t ever want to minimize the significance of these networks; they’re extremely important to communities, but I also think about how that energy and those personal and community resources could be used if basic needs were met through public policy,” Carnes said. “We can’t let lawmakers off the hook. COVID has been devastating to so many communities, and if there was ever a situation that justified bigger public investments, this is it.”

Tina Vásquez

Tina Vásquez is the senior reporter at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.