What Is Employment Disparity?

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Most Americans believe in freedom and equality for all. These are foundational principles of our democracy and permeate all aspects of our society—at least in theory. Sadly, our history does not reflect these ideals. Instead, our history exhibits systemic racism in every area of life, including employment disparity. For over a century, the United States built its economy largely on the backs of minority groups. Many policies such as slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the New Deal relegated people of color to menial and perpetually low-paying occupations. And unfortunately, racial disparities in job opportunities, wages, benefits, and economic well-being continue to this day.

The History of Occupational Inequality in America

Slavery is one of the hallmarks of occupational inequality in the United States. Slavery was a common practice in the 1700s and early 1800s when most forced labor was agricultural in nature. Over time, slaves also assumed household jobs such as cooking, serving food, cleaning, cutting hair, watching children, carrying luggage, and many more menial tasks.

The United States finally abolished slavery in 1863, but this hardly translated into workplace equality. The federal government established the Freedmen’s Bureau to help former slaves transition to freedom, but it was woefully inadequate. The Bureau did little more than encourage newly freed slaves to enter into employment contracts with their former captors. These contracts typically involved performing the same work as before but for modest monetary compensation.

Similarly, state and local governments enacted Jim Crow laws in an attempt to keep former slaves in their place. An example of this is South Carolina’s enactment of “Black Codes.” These laws fined minorities attempting to find work in any position other than domestic servitude or farming. For over a century, government-sanctioned exploitation of racial minorities exacerbated racial inequality and employment disparity in the United States.

Fair Labor Standards Act Exempted Menial Labor

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) introduced many improvements for American workers, like establishing a 40-hour work week and banning child labor. However, this Act exempted many service, agricultural, and domestic occupations where most people of color worked. By exempting the very businesses that employed minorities, the FLSA did nothing to help the most vulnerable and lowest-paid employees in the country.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that activists secured landmark civil rights victories like the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This finally made it illegal to discriminate against anyone based on race, creed, national origin, or color. In addition, the government formed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to enforce civil rights laws. Unfortunately, despite these advancements toward equality in the workplace, employment disparity in America is still alive and well. People of color continue to occupy the vast majority of low-paying service, agricultural, and domestic jobs.

What Is Employment Disparity?

If you compare the employment statistics of different racial groups and see patterns of unequal treatment, that is employment disparity. Our history has laid the groundwork for the occupational inequality that still exists today. But this disparity involves more than just the types of jobs most minorities hold. You can find employment disparity across all demographics.

Employment Disparity Statistics

According to the Urban Institute, a non-profit, unbiased research organization, white youths are employed at much higher rates than minority youths. For example, in the 16-19 age range, 41% of white teenagers have jobs, compared to only 24.7% of black teens, 26.2% of Latino teens, and 20.1% of Asian teens.

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) also points to a number of statistics that exhibit disparity. For instance, on average and across most education levels, black workers are twice as likely to be unemployed as white workers. The EPI cites the following 2019 unemployment statistics for each educational level:

  • Less than high school education: 15.4% for blacks, 8.4% for whites;
  • High school education: 8.2% for blacks, 3.8% for whites;
  • Some college education: 5.6% for blacks, 3.0% for whites;
  • College educated: 3.5% for blacks, 2.2% for whites; and
  • Overall average: 6.4% for blacks, 3.1% for whites.

In addition, the EPI cites underemployment as another disparity. For example, 39.4% of blacks with a college degree are not employed in positions that require a degree as compared to 30.9% of whites.

Keeping Pace with Change

Although progress has been slow, states all over the country and the federal government continue to pass laws that expand protection for workers and seek to decrease employment disparity. In October of 2019, our state expanded the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act (FEPA) to provide greater protections for workers. The previous version of the Act outlawed discrimination based on color, religion, race, sex, age, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, genetic information, or disabilities. It applied to businesses with more than 15 employees.

However, the expanded law now covers businesses that employ even one person. Another big change is that independent contractors are now considered “employees” for the purpose of discrimination protection. This provision significantly expands the number of individuals benefiting from these anti-discrimination laws. Furthermore, the legislature extended the statute of limitations on discrimination claims from one year to two and sometimes even three years.

There Is Still Much to Be Done

The fight for racial equality in and outside of the workplace continues in this country. There is still much we need to do. Despite past efforts, there are stark and persistent economic inequalities between races in the US. Along with anti-discrimination laws, we must implement long-term interventions to increase access to training and higher-paying jobs for minorities. Increasing the minimum wage for people who work in the service, domestic, or agricultural industry is another way to bridge the gap. We must work together to increase everyone’s opportunities and reward people who put in a hard day’s work with enough compensation to survive. If you feel that someone you love has been treated unfairly in the work environment, there may be action you can take.

We Can Help

The attorneys at the Smithey Law Group are here to protect your rights in the workplace. And if you are an employer who wants to increase compliance with current state laws, we can help with that as well. Call us at 410-919-2990 or contact us online today.

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Joyce Smithey, a seasoned employment and labor law attorney, has over 22 years of experience representing both employers and employees in Maryland and D.C. Her practice, rooted in a deep understanding of employment law, spans administrative hearings to federal litigation. Joyce's approach is comprehensive, focusing on protecting client interests while ensuring legal compliance. A Harvard graduate, her career began in Fortune 500 companies, transitioning to law after a degree from Boston University School of Law. Joyce's expertise is recognized by numerous awards, including Maryland’s Top 100 Women. At Smithey Law Group LLC, which she founded in 2018, Joyce continues to champion employment rights, drawing on her rich background in law and business.

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