Black Essential Workers Twice as Likely to Experience Workplace Retaliation During Pandemic

Top Takeaways

  • One in eight workers has reported employer retaliation against workers who raise health and safety concerns during the pandemic.
  • Black workers are more than twice as likely as white workers to have seen retaliatory actions by their employer.
  • Black workers are also twice as likely as white workers to indicate having unresolved COVID-related concerns at work.
  • Women asked about workplace retaliation were more likely to report witnessing or experiencing punishment for speaking up about health and safety concerns—12.5 percent for women, versus 10.4 percent for men.

The National Employment Law Project (NELP)—a non-profit research organization that specializes on issues affecting low-wage and unemployed workers—reported concerning statistics regarding retaliation against Black workers who expressed concerns about the spread of COVID-19.

In May, NELP collected responses from nearly 1,140 essential workers across the U.S. who have remained in their place of work during the pandemic. (These workers face a much greater risk of contracting the virus than those who have the ability to remain at home.)

The survey concluded Black workers were twice as likely to say they have experienced or witnessed reprisal, or even termination, after having voiced safety concerns about coronavirus in the workplace compared to white workers.

Nineteen percent of Black workers—compared to 9 percent of white workers and 12 percent overall—responded positively when asked if they, or any of their coworkers, have been punished or fired for raising concerns about the risk of coronavirus spreading at the workplace.

Black workers are more than twice as likely as white workers to have seen possible retaliation by their employer, with 9 percent of Black workers answering “Yes” and another 10 percent answering “Maybe” to the question, “Have you or has anyone at your company been punished or fired for raising concerns about the risk of coronavirus spreading
at the workplace?” (NELP)

The study also revealed a gender gap: Women asked about workplace retaliation were more likely to report witnessing or experiencing punishment for speaking up about health and safety concerns—12.5 percent for women, versus 10.4 percent for men.


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Respondents described retribution from employers and managers, such as employer hostility, threats and intimidation, termination and reporting false information about federal worker protections.   

“Unfortunately, workplace retaliation during the pandemic is not as uncommon as you might think,” said Irene Tung, senior researcher and policy analyst with NELP and lead author of the study. “Too little attention has been paid to the connection between workplace repression and virus transmission.

“For Black workers, this dynamic is exacerbated by our country’s long history of systemic racism in the workplace and in the labor market—making it particularly difficult to speak up about COVID-related concerns,” Tung continued.

Additionally, 80 percent of Black workers reported having experienced safety concerns in their work environment. Black workers were also twice as likely as white workers to face unresolved safety concerns.

Black workers were twice as likely as white workers to have unresolved concerns, with more than one in three Black workers (39 percent) reporting either that they had raised concerns to their employer about COVID-19 but were unsatisfied with their employer’s response, or that they did not raise concerns for fear of retaliation. By contrast, 18 percent of white workers were in the same situation. (NELP)

Of course, this valid fear of retaliation has silenced many workers—but disproportionately Black ones: Black workers were twice as likely as white workers to report avoiding raising concerns due to fear of retaliation.

Even still, many employers have dismissed workers’ commentary, according to NELP’s study. This may lead to worsening and more dangerous working conditions for employees, employers, managers and the general public.  

There is, further, a gender gap between those who must report to work in-person, even in the midst of a pandemic. Sixty-eight percent of women responded positively to working outside the home during the pandemic, even though they thought it might be seriously risking their health or the health of their families. (Compare this to 60 percent of men—an 8-point gender gap.)

These responses speak to the disproportionate number of women serving as essential workers—such as nurses, flight attendants and service industry workers—during the pandemic. (For example, women make up almost 76 percent of flight attendants and 90 percent of registered and licensed nurses.)

Black workers disproportionately fill these jobs too: 73 percent of Black workers have reported going to work, even though they believe it’s a grave health risk to both themselves and their families. Sixty-four percent of Latinx workers and 49 percent of white workers reported the same. 

“Our survey results suggest that virus transmission in the workplace may be exacerbated by employer repression and that the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black communities may be related to greater exposure of Black workers to repressive workplace environments,” explained Laura Padin, senior staff attorney with NELP.

“These findings are especially important now, as more businesses reopen and the dangerous implications of penalizing workers for raising health and safety concerns will only grow.”


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About

Jenna Ashendouek is an editorial intern at Ms. and a student at Tufts University pursuing a BA in International Relations with a minor in Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies.