Policies Reinforce Racial Inequalities In Work

Federal and state policies that were passed to increase worker protections have done so through the exclusion of certain workers on the basis of race, immigration status, and citizenship.

The federal government has played an active role in reinforcing racial inequities through policy. Two examples of federal policies intentionally excluding workers of color include the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938. Both pieces of legislation were monumental in improving workers’ rights, with the NLRA providing workers the right to collective bargaining and the FLSA enacting minimum wage, overtime, and child labor protections. However, domestic and agricultural workers—positions historically held by Black workers and, more recently, by immigrant workers—were deliberately excluded from these laws to gain the support of Southern Democrats in passing this New Deal legislation (Siqueira et al., 2014; Perea, 2011).

The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin, did little to address the deep-seated nature of structural racism reflected in other laws (Wiececk & Hamilton, 2014; Douglas et al., 2015). One example is the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) of 1970, which requires that employers across industries maintain a safe and healthy work environment (Gleeson, 2016). However,   protections do not extend to workers in private households. As a result, domestic workers, who are predominantly Black or have immigrant backgrounds, are not protected (Siqueira et al., 2014). Another example is the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986, which granted citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants, but simultaneously increased border security and prohibited the hiring of undocumented immigrants. This latter provision has created racial inequities for undocumented immigrants. IRCA allowed employers to deny knowledge of legal status while hiring workers under subpar conditions, which increased the risk of exploitation for undocumented workers (Paret, 2014; Massey & Pren, 2012; Gomberg-Munoz & Nussbaum-Barberena, 2011; Bonacich et al., 2008).

In addition to federal policies, state and local governments may enact more restrictive laws, which in some cases, have discriminatory effects on workers of color. One example is right-to-work laws prohibiting states from requiring workers who work in unionized workplaces to pay dues to the union representing them. The effects were especially pronounced in the South, where states enacted right-to-work laws to counter what was seen as the rising power and rights of Black workers (Garcia, 2019). This legislation has effectively weakened union political strength and bargaining power in states with right-to-work laws, thereby diminishing protections for workers, many of whom are workers of color (Garcia, 2019; BLS, 2019). Black workers, in particular, form the highest proportion of unionized workers and, therefore, disproportionately risk the loss of workplace protections.

Another example is state laws mandating E-Verify, a federal system intended to discourage the hiring of undocumented immigrants by matching employee tax documents with government databases. While these laws are purported to protect citizens, they often target Latinx workers and their families by limiting access to the labor market and increasing worker vulnerability to racial profiling and criminalization (Gomberg-Munoz & Nussbaum-Barberena, 2011; Ayón et al., 2012). One study found that Arizona’s Legal Arizona Workers Act (LAWA), enacted in 2007, restricted access to employment for undocumented workers, increased exploitation by employers, and resulted in the criminalization of workers by enforcement agencies who should instead be sanctioning employers (Ayón et al., 2012).

These laws demonstrate U.S. and state lawmakers’ active pursuit of legislation that discriminates against and excludes workers of color and immigrants from labor and economic opportunities, fostering economic inequality and racial health inequities.

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