The impact of COVID-19 on Black communities is disproportionate and deadly. Data on everything from fatalities, triage protocols, essential worker protections (or lack thereof) and relief efforts make clear the heightened risk faced by Black, undocumented, working poor, disabled, LGBTQ, incarcerated folks and those at the intersections of each. While limited data is available this memo highlights some of the experiences that the most vulnerable communities face.  

The purpose of this memo is to provide information for groups to use as they see fit in their advocacy and organizing efforts. At the end of the memo we also have included a number of ongoing campaigns that groups can support and add to. 

Table of Contents

  1. Incarceration Disparities
  2. Essential Worker Disparities
  3. Economic Vulnerability
  4. Ongoing Campaigns

Incarceration Disparities

New York State jails are death traps and have some of the highest infection rates in the world 

  • Thus far, 219 people in New York State custody have tested positive for COVID-19. This number is undoubtedly a severe undercount given the extremely high rates of positive tests (as high as 91% at Bedford Hills) and the extremely low rate of testing (nearly 1/3rd of New York’s overall testing rate). 
  • In Rikers Island, a disproportionately Black population faces one of the highest rates of infection in the world at 9.18%. This is higher than NYC (1.65%), NYS (1.3%), the United States (0.25%), Italy (0.3%), and Wuhan China (0.12%).

Black people are at higher risk because of their over-representation in New York’s jails and prisons

  • Black people make up 58% of the city’s incarcerated population but only 24% of the city’s total population
  • Black people make up 48% of the state’s incarcerated population but only 18% of the state’s total population 

Black trans New Yorkers are particularly at risk 

  • While all men face about a 1 in 9 chance of being put in a cage and Black men face a 1 in 3 chance, approximately 1 in 2 Black trans folks have been to prison
  • A 2015 national survey found that Black transgender womxn are incarcerated at ten times the rate of the general population 

Black people in custody face higher risks of mortality once exposed to COVID-19 because of chronic conditions such as asthma, cancer, HIV and high blood pressure

  • From 1990 to 2012, the U.S prison population aged 55 or older increased by 550 percent. Approximately 31% of New York’s prison population is aged 40-54. Older inmates, as in the general population, have higher rates of chronic health conditions, cognitive impairment or dementia, and disabilities
  • Nationally, a majority of Black people in prison and in jail reported having a chronic condition.
  • A 2006 study found that rates of hepatitis C infection was 8.7 times higher among the incarcerated population 
  • African American men in jails specifically are five times as likely as white men to be diagnosed with HIV.African American womxn are twice as likely as white to be diagnosed with HIV.
  • Black communities most targeted by incarceration also have higher rates of asthma, a risk factor for COVID 19.  

New York’s Black trans community is particularly at risk with higher rates of preconditions such as HIV and far lower rates of healthcare coverage.

Despite these elevated health concerns, Black incarcerated New Yorkers face substandard and inhumane health care. Chief Rikers Island physician Ross Macdonald has described conditions at Rikers as a public health disaster.

  • 1 in 8 trans folks who have been incarcerated reported denial of routine healthcare and 1 in 3 Black trans respondents reported denial of hormones
  • 1 in 5 LGBTQ respondents to Black and Pinks 2015 national prison survey reported that correctional medical staff have treated them disrespectfully or somewhat disrespectfully
  • Studies show that jails and prison’s poor ventilation, overcrowding, and stress may exacerbate chronic health conditions
  • Studies show that incarceration is associated with worse health for all persons both during and after time is served compared with general population persons.

Political leaders are not doing enough and thousands are still languishing in cages

The tepid responses by Governor Cuomo and Bill De Blasio have ignored the humanity of thousands of incarcerated Black New Yorkers. On April 14th, DOCCS and DOC began releasing individuals fitting various categories such as those serving city sentences, aged 55 and older or those in custody for technical parole violations. As of April 22nd, the DOCCS had announced 171 individuals that had been identified for release– less than half of 1% of the total incarcerated population. The DOC has pointed to a 1,536 person decrease in jail population since March 16th, but this figure includes individuals who have completed their sentences or were released on bail. This is insufficient even by their own standards:

  • Over 2,000 Black people are in custody for technical parole violations. These are individuals that have not committed any crime, but have violated a condition of parole such as moving without discussing with a Parole Officer, consuming alcohol and not abiding by an imposed curfew. 
  • 1,579 Black people are being held pretrial in New York City alone
    • 481 have been incarcerated for at least 1 year, 440 have been there more than 181 days.
  • 65 Black people are in jail serving city sentences (these include violations of NY laws that incur a sentence of one year or less such as loitering, possession of graffiti instruments, unlawful sale of MTA services). This is compared to only 12 white people currently serving a city sentence.
  • 160 are held only on technical parole violations in New York City. This is compared to 22 white people in new york city jails for technical parole violations. 
  • 458 are being held in New York City with a nonviolent felony or misdemeanor. This is compared to 105 white people in jail for nonviolent felony or misdemeanor. 
    • Of these 458 people, 64 are over 50 years old.

Essential Worker Disparities

Black people are dying of COVID-19 at more than four times the rate of white people: 

  • Black people make up 9% of New York’s population but account for 18% of New York’s COVID fatalities. We hold the highest age adjusted death rate per 100,000 in the state at 99 (Hispanic: 86; White: 23; Asian: 53).

Black New Yorkers are disproportionately essential workers and are being exposed to COVID-19 at alarming rates: 

  • Black workers make up nearly 25% of New York’s 2.6 million essential workers (649,016 people), but account for only 14% of the workers employed in the state overall. 
    • Black womxn alone make up 16% of the state’s essential workers but 10% of New York’s total workforce. 
    • 83,807 or 3% of essential workers are Black non-US citizens, and of those nearly 69% being Black womxn (57,610). Many are finding it difficult to receive stimulus checks and many are cut out of relief completely. 
    • 54,634 or 2% of essential workers are Black people with a disability, with 71% being Black womxn. Despite being at higher risk of COVID exposure, this group is systematically discriminated against in the triage process, with Black trans folks being especially at risk. 
  • On a city level, Black New Yorkers make up 33% of nearly 1 million essential workers  (330,000) and 21% of city workers overall.
  • While about 1 in 3 white workers can work from home, less than 1 in 5 Black workers and 1 in 6 Latinx workers are able to do so.

Despite being “essential” workers, most Black frontline workers are underpaid and face exploitative conditions. 

  • Black Grocery and Supermarket retail workers 
    • Black workers in the Supermarket and Grocery industry make an average income of $19,502 for men and $16,964 for womxn.
    • Supermarket retail workers have an average family income of $43,497 and spend 28% of household income on rent. This is compared to non-Black supermarket retail workers, who make an average of $59,608 and spend 16% of household income on rent.
    • 18% of New York’s sales cashiers are Black. They have an average income of $13,832 for Black men and $11,805 for Black womxn. They have a family income of $45,349 with 27% of household income going to rent. 
  • Black Healthcare Workers
    • Home Health Aides and Personal Care Aides make significantly less than New York’s median income and are disproportionately Black and Latinx womxn.
    • According to ACS data, Black womxn working as Home Health Aides make an average income of $25,146
  • Transit Workers
    • More than 40% of New York City transit workers are Black
    • As of April 21st, over 2,400 transit workers have tested positive for COVID and 83 have died. This puts transit workers at a higher risk of death from COVID than New York’s overall population.
  • Workers in building cleaning service industry
    • Disproportionately immigrants (70%) and non US citizen (36%) and Black (17%). 
    • 24% of New York’s building cleaning services workforce is Black. They have a family average income of about $37,000 with 23% going to rent
    • Black womxn in janitor and building cleaning occupations make an average income of $21,555
    • Black womxn in this industry who are not US citizens have an average earnings of $14,989. 
  • Domestic workers 
    • Over 258,000 in New York and a disproportionate amount are Black and/or immigrant womxn.
    • Nationally,  77% are primary breadwinners, but:
      • 23.4% live under the poverty line during normal conditions 
      • 72% reported having no work for the week beginning 4/6
      • 84% reported they either will not be able to afford food for the weeks of April 6-19th (30%) or are uncertain if they will be able to (54%)
      • 55% of respondents were unable to pay April’s rent and 77% are worried about eviction
  • Farmworkers
    • There are approximately 80,000-100,000 farm workers across New York. Many live in employee-provided housing with tight quarters that makes it difficult to social distance. 
    • Many are undocumented and will not be provided any relief. 
  • Hotel Workers
    • Approximately 1/5th of New York City’s hotel industry is Black and nearly 2/3rds are immigrants. 
    • New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council chief forecasted that as many as 95% of the city’s hotel workers could be laid off during the crisis.
    • For the few that stay working:
      • Hotel, Motel, and Resort Desk Clerks: 21% Black, Black men in this occupation make an average income of $24,157 and Black womxn make $21,175. Average family income is about 40K, 25% of household income goes to rent for men; 36% for womxn
      • Baggage Porters, Bellhops and Concierges: 24% Black; make an average income of about $34K and a family income of about $51K;
      • Maids and Housekeeping Cleaners: about 15% are Black womxn; Black womxn make an average income of $24,453

Black womxn are vulnerable and underpaid essential workers. 

  •  Black womxn make up about 10% of New York’s workers, but
    • 38% of all home health aides in the state of New York are Black womxn. Black womxn home health aides make an average income of $25,146. They make an average family income of $45,921 and spend an average of 29.88% of household income on rent
    • 27% of all personal care aides in the state of New York are Black womxn, with an average income of $22,917 and an average family income of $40,130, with over 30% of all household income going to rent on average.
    • 43% of New York’s Nursing Assistants are Black womxn. Black womxn nursing assistants make an average income of $26,070 and an average family income of $48,796 with 28% of their household income going to rent on average.   

Economic Vulnerability 

Black people are economically more vulnerable to financial crisis as a result of systemic racism: 

  • Nationally, the median net worth of black families is $17,600, compared with $171,000 for white families. A white family is likely to have $10 for every $1 a black family has.
  • As in prior recessions, Black workers are poised to be a disproportionate number of the estimated half-million New Yorkers who lose their jobs from COVID
  • Over 28,000 Black New Yorkers filed unemployment claims in the week ending 4/18 alone, making up 20% of claims in that week.In the week prior, 50,312 Black New Yorkers filed. 
  • Almost 30 percent of Black college-educated households would not be able to afford to pay all their bills after a $400 emergency expense. These figures increase to nearly 60 percent for non-college-educated Black households
  • Black lgbtq folks are also more likely to be housing insecure and less likely to have health insurance. 
    • A 2017 New York City Comptroller survey of the LGBTQ community notes that 27% of Black respondents have experienced homelessnesss.

Black LGBTQ+ New Yorkers face extreme economic uncertainty in normal conditions, making them a particularly vulnerable group amidst this crisis 

  • According to a Williams Institute report, 42% of Black LGBT adults reported not having enough money for food in the past year.
  • 38% of Black trans folks live in poverty.
  • 32% of Black trans New Yorkers report having lost a job due to their gender identity 
  • A 2012 report found that “32 percent of children being raised by Black same-sex couples live in poverty, compared to 13 percent of children being raised by heterosexual Black parents and just 7 percent being raised by married heterosexual white parents.” 
  • Additionally, Black transgender people face severe rates of poverty, with 34 percent living in extreme poverty compared to just 9 percent of non-transgender Black people.
  • Data on folks specifically serviced by the Rockland Pride Center 61% increase in services since the start of the crisis with 40% of these services going to People of Color and 48% to Transgender/Non-Binary people.

Many Black folks are already locked out of the economy and work in the informal sector as a result they are both more financially vulnerable and not eligible for small business loans:

  • Street vendors are primarily immigrants and people of color and are reporting loss in sales of up to 80% across the 5 boroughs. Yet, many won’t qualify for federal government relief programs or city wide grants.

Even Black folks who are eligible for small business loans are not receiving them:

  • Nationally, roughly 95% of Black-ownded businesses stand close to no chance of receiving an SBA Paycheck Protection Plan loan due to a history of racist lending practices and the exclusion of Black businesses from bank relationships. 
    • The structure of the loan also puts Black businesses at a disadvantage since most have very few employees and only 25% of the loan can be used for non-payroll expenses.
  • A recent study by the New York Fed classified nearly three-quarters of white-owned firms as “healthy” or “stable,” while only 43 percent of black-owned businesses earned those ratings, making it more difficult for Black-owned businesses to get loans. 

True Black unemployment is at 19.4% nationally according to estimates by William Rodgers, former chief economist at the US Dept. of Labor.

  • Black trans unemployment was 20% BEFORE COVID according to national surveys  (unsure of true unemployment)

Communities directly impacted by the carceral system (police, jails, and all the tentacles of the prison industrial complex) have been historically under-resourced for decades. These policies have fueled what is known as mass incarceration and simultaneously exacerbated disparities in health, education, and all of the quality of life issues in communities of color. A study conducted by incarcerated men in a New York State prison in the late 1970s found that over 75% of New York State’s prison population came from seven NYC neighborhoods (Brownsville, East New York, Bedford-Stuyvesant, South Jamaica, Lower East Side, Harlem, South Bronx). Decades later, these same neighborhoods continue to be impacted with disparities which made them vulnerable to  COVID19. Over a course of several months In 2018, the #buildCOMMUNITIES platform was formulated by directly impacted people and communities, as well as a range of partner organizations and advisors. They outlined a vision and demands in the following areas:

  • Public Health
  • Housing
  • Employment & Economic Development
  • Education & Schools
  • Community Programs & Services
  • Conflict Transformation & Alternative Accountability
  • Structure of Investments

Ongoing Campaigns