New Study Shows The Impact Of COVID-19 Crisis On NYC Workers And Union Members

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on labor markets worldwide. In the U.S., millions of workers have been furloughed or laid off in both unionized and non-union sectors.

New York is no exception. In the early phases of the pandemic, New York City was the national epicenter due to its high population density, extensive reliance on public transportation, high rates of poverty and poor access to health care. The initial delays in responding by government officials, as well as the limited availability of testing, compounded these problems. An estimated 6,000 working age (18-64) New Yorkers have died from COVID-19, among nearly 24,000 in the city’s population. Although unionized workers were less likely to lose their lives to the virus than the general workforce, for some unions and sectors the impact has been devastating. A report released today by the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, State of the Unions 2020, A Profile of Organized Labor in New York City, New York State, and the United States, presents data on confirmed COVID cases and deaths, as well as layoffs and furloughs, among members of some of New York City’s largest unions as of July 2020, and analyzes the pandemic’s effect more broadly on New York’s labor market. The report also includes an in-depth look at the geographic, demographic, and occupational makeup of union membership in New York City, New York State, and the nation.

“We haven’t seen this scale of unemployment – over 20% in June according to the official statistics – since the 1930s. And the actual rate is likely much higher.”

“There’s still much to learn about the impact this pandemic will ultimately have on New York’s labor market; not just initially, but for years to come,” said report co-author Ruth Milkman, Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies and the CUNY Graduate Center. “We haven’t seen this scale of unemployment – over 20% in June according to the official statistics – since the 1930s. And the actual rate is likely much higher.”

More than half the private-sector job losses between June 2019-June 2020 were in only two industry groups: “leisure and hospitality” (-278,900) and “trade, transportation, and utilities” (-136,700). In addition, the State Comptroller’s Office reported that between March 1 and July 10, 2020 alone, at least 2,800 small businesses closed permanently, including 1,289 restaurants and 844 retail businesses. According to that report’s authors, those jobs are unlikely to be restored in the foreseeable future.

The report notes that there were 758,400 fewer private-sector jobs in New York City in June 2020 than in June 2019. Public-sector workers were much less likely to be laid off or furloughed. Workers in the tourism industry were especially vulnerable, as were workers in the hotel, retail and entertainment industries. More than half the private-sector job losses between June 2019-June 2020 were in only two industry groups: “leisure and hospitality” (-278,900) and “trade, transportation, and utilities” (-136,700). In addition, the State Comptroller’s Office reported that between March 1 and July 10, 2020 alone, at least 2,800 small businesses closed permanently, including 1,289 restaurants and 844 retail businesses. According to that report’s authors, those jobs are unlikely to be restored in the foreseeable future.

Union members have been affected in a variety of ways, depending on the industry they work in. While unionized hotel workers experienced dramatic layoffs, hospital workers were in great demand – but faced enormous job-related health risks. Most unionized teachers and white-collar city and state employees transitioned to remote work, as did private-sector administrative and professional workers, and thus were minimally impacted.

Although unionized workers were less likely to lose their lives due to COVID-19 than the general workforce, for a few sectors and unions, the impact was devastating nevertheless, especially in light of the knowledge that better preparation and an earlier lockdown could have prevented so many infections and deaths.

The Table below shows the data on a selection of NYC union members. It is far from comprehensive; some unions have not collected such data or declined to make it available. Given inadequate testing and other challenges, the figures in the table for cases and deaths are extremely conservative estimates. The two largest unions in the city, 1199SEIU and District Council 37 of AFSCME, provided data on layoffs (which were minimal in both cases) but did not report cases or deaths. Excluding those two, more than one in five (22 percent) of the union members listed in the Table below had suffered either layoffs or COVID-19 infections by July. Hundreds of union members lost their lives while doing their jobs during the crisis, as the table also shows.

Table 1A. Estimated Layoffs/Furloughs, Infections and Deaths from COVID-19 among Members of Selected New York City Unions, July 2020.

Membership data are from the same sources as shown in the Appendix to this report, unless otherwise indicated.

“Workers and their unions must continue to demand that employers and government officials make much more extensive efforts to ensure their health and safety,” said co-author Stephanie Luce, Professor of Labor Studies at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.

As more businesses reopen across New York, the concern is mounting among union and non-union workers alike. In highly unionized “essential” industries like health care, groceries, meatpacking, education, and transportation, as well as in nonunion settings where labor demand remains strong, employers’ failure to provide adequate protection for workers’ health remains an enormous challenge. The prospect of schools’ resuming in-person instruction has propelled both the teachers’ and school principals’ unions to urge a delay in reopening. Everywhere, workers and unions are demanding that employers and government officials make much more extensive efforts to ensure their health and safety.

In this preliminary report, the authors offer a snapshot of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City, and a stark warning about what may lie ahead.

The School of Labor and Urban Studies (CUNY SLU) is the 25th and newest school at the City University of New York. It offers undergraduate and graduates degree and certificate programs in Labor Studies and Urban Studies that are designed to meet the needs of working adults as well as traditional-age college students.

SLU is an outgrowth of the Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, established in 1984 by CUNY in collaboration with three New York City unions, and began with 52 students. Today, the leaders of 26 labor and community organizations serve on the SLU’s advisory board.

SLU is an outgrowth of the Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, established in 1984 by CUNY in collaboration with three New York City unions, and began with 52 students. Today, the leaders of 26 labor and community organizations serve on the SLU’s advisory board.

The vision for SLU derives from its core values: access to education, diversity at every level, social justice, and equality for all. Its goals are to expand higher education opportunities for workers; prepare students who aspire to careers in public service and movements for social justice; promote civic engagement; provide leadership development for union and community activists; and help workers achieve greater economic security. For more information visit www.slu.cuny.edu.

Photo credit: Nurses Union.

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