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Study: Glass ceiling limits black wages

Chicago Sun-Times

By Leonard N. Fleming

LABOR | Unions, stalled pay law could help locally

Once homeless and destitute, George Anthony Huff Sr. now holds temp jobs ranging from construction to the assembly line to pay the bills.

But Huff, 52, who grew up on Chicago’s South Side, says he’s hanging on by a thread. His pay is lousy, and there are no health benefits, he says.

So he wasn’t surprised to hear about the findings of a University of California at Berkeley Labor Center study, released today, that shows more than half of America’s black workers earn low pay, lack adequate benefits and hit a glass ceiling when seeking to move beyond their low-wage status.

Huff, who is African-American, says he and many other blacks are just a mistake away from sliding back into hard-core poverty.

“It helps me to pay my bills, but it’s not anything stable,” he said of his temp jobs.

The report by Steven C. Pitts, a labor policy specialist at the center, is titled, “Job Quality and Black Workers: An Examination of the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.”

Among the highlights:

• Nearly 56.7 percent of blacks work in low-wage jobs, compared with 43.9 percent of whites, 44.6 percent of Asians and 68.7 percent of Latinos.

• Black workers tend to be employed in industries such as manufacturing and retail that pay low salaries.

• Blacks also work in industries, like health care, that are insulated from having jobs outsourced overseas and are projected to grow in the future. Thus, these industries should do more to address the quality of jobs that employ high numbers of African Americans.

In an interview last week, Pitts said his focus brought him to Chicago because of the prominence of cities in which large pockets of black people live and work. There’s a “two-dimensional problem,” with both unemployment and a crisis of low-wage work among blacks, he said.

“You have a lot of blacks who have jobs, but the quality of those jobs are not very good,” Pitts said.

Pitts said unions could be used to improve job quality, and more emphasis should be placed on enacting laws like the stalled big-box minimum wage ordinance, which would have required retailers such as Wal-Mart to pay employees $10 an hour in wages and $3 an hour in benefits by 2010.

Mayor Daley vetoed the ordinance.

City Council urged to act

Although he hasn’t read the report, Huff said he hopes it will bring attention to the plight of black workers in Chicago.

Huff, who does leadership work for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, also said he hopes the report spurs the Council to override Daley’s veto.

“The politicians, I’m sure they’ll read it. But as far as taking action, it will take us to push this into action,” Huff said. “I’m not saying that anything will be done, but our voices will be heard.”