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Young and Jobless in Europe: ‘It’s Been Desperate’

Like millions of young people across Europe, Rebecca Lee, 25, has suddenly found herself shut out of the labor market as the economic toll of the pandemic intensifies.

Her job as a personal assistant at a London architecture firm, where she had worked for two years, was eliminated in September, leaving her looking for work of any kind.

Ms. Lee, who has a degree in illustration from the University of Westminster, sent out nearly 100 job applications. After scores of rejections, and even being wait-listed for a food delivery gig at Deliveroo, she finally landed a two-month contract at a family-aid charity that pays 10 pounds (about $13) an hour.

“At the moment I will take anything I can get,” Ms. Lee said. “It’s been desperate.”

The coronavirus pandemic is rapidly fueling a new youth unemployment crisis in Europe. Young people are being disproportionately hit, economically and socially, by lockdown restrictions, forcing many to make painful adjustments and leaving policymakers grasping for solutions.

Years of job growth has eroded in a matter of months, leaving more than twice as many young people than other adults out of work. The jobless rate for people 25 and under jumped from 14.7 percent in January to 17.6 percent in August, its highest level since 2017.

Europe is not the only place where younger workers face a jobs crunch. Young Americans are especially vulnerable to the downturn. In China, young adults are struggling for jobs in the post-outbreak era. But in Europe, the pandemic’s economic impact puts an entire generation at risk, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Young people are overrepresented in sectors where jobs are disappearing, including travel, retail and hospitality. Graduates are facing unprecedented competition for even entry-level positions from a tsunami of newly laid-off workers.

The scarring effects may linger. “If you’re unemployed earlier on in your career, you’re more likely to experience joblessness in the future,” said Neal Kilbane, a senior economist at Oxford Economics.

The European Union is trying to cushion the blow by encouraging businesses to recruit young people. But such programs may have little impact as Europe confronts its worst recession since World War II.

Europeans coming of age in the pandemic are lowering their expectations of the jobs and careers they can get. Many are resorting to internships, living with parents or returning to school to ride out the storm. Young workers without higher education risk sliding even further.

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Credit…Gianfranco Tripodo for The New York Times

Spain

Alvaro Castillo Sierra knew something was amiss when he was asked to certify during a March job interview that he wasn’t living with someone who had Covid-19. At PVH, the Amsterdam clothing retailer where he had hoped to land a coveted marketing position, there were no handshakes.

He realized an economic crisis linked to the pandemic was imminent.

Mr. Castillo Sierra, 25, had worked diligently since graduating from a top Spanish university in 2018 to lay the groundwork for a dream career in the retail or cosmetics industry.

Armed with an economics degree, he crunched financial data at a Madrid bank consultancy, then worked in a paid internship at the cosmetics giant L’Oréal, helping to manage and analyze brand budgets and campaigns.

In February, he moved to Amsterdam and landed interviews with PVH, Adidas and other big retailers. His excitement grew when PVH invited him for a second interview in March.

When the coronavirus hit, the position was pulled back.

“I had all these interviews with great companies,” Mr. Castillo Sierra said. “But then the rhythm stopped.” His days were soon consumed with trawling LinkedIn for job openings, which dwindled rapidly. Instead of entry-level posts, more internships were listed.

Mr. Castillo Sierra returned to Madrid in July to live with his parents and took another internship, this time with 3INA, a vegan cosmetics brand, where he assists with the company’s marketing program and is paid less than 600 euros (about $700) a month.

He enrolled in an online master’s degree course in digital marketing, in hopes of increasing his chances at employment should the market recover.

“I have experience, and it’s a struggle to find work,” Mr. Castillo Sierra said. “I can’t imagine what it’s like for other young people.”

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Credit…Elena Heatherwick for The New York Times

Britain

Despite a government furlough program designed to limit unemployment, hundreds of thousands of workers were laid off in Britain just as Alicia Davis entered the job market.

Ms. Davis, who had earned a master’s degree in psychology, was soon competing with a rapidly expanding pool of unemployed candidates with work experience she didn’t have. Many were angling to secure any kind of job — including entry-level positions that are traditionally the steppingstone to careers for new graduates.

“I started to think, ‘Oh, God, it will be more difficult than I initially thought,’” said Ms. Davis, 22, who has moved back into her parents’ home northwest of London.

When she applied for a human resources position at a London company, she learned that 800 others were seeking the same job, many with senior management experience.

Ms. Davis recently took a four-week gig conducting surveys for a car company. It pays Britain’s minimum wage of £8.20 an hour.

The work leaves her with less time to push out job applications, and she wonders when she will get an opportunity to start a career in occupational psychology.

“I know at some point I will get a job, hopefully related to what I want to do,” Ms. Davis said. “But I feel like I’m a year behind where I should be.”

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Credit…Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times

Italy

At 15, Mario Palumbo, who grew up in public housing near Naples, dropped out of high school to support his mother and sister after his father died, taking temporary low-paid jobs as a mover and a house painter and at construction sites.

But in recent years, Mr. Palumbo, 33, who is passionate about food, was proud to have forged something of a steady career as a cook. Having worked his way from coffee carrier to waiter, and then to assistant chef at trattorias around Naples, he was hired in September last year on a temporary contract as a chef running a station at a trendy restaurant.

When the pandemic hit Italy in February, his contract wasn’t renewed. Jobs were so scarce that the Italian Mafia fanned out around his neighborhood, trying to recruit gofers from scores of unemployed young people. Unemployment rates across Italy rose to 9.7 percent in August.

Unable to find work, Mr. Palumbo started relying on his mother’s €300 basic income check. He eventually found an off-the-books job in May at a restaurant in Calabria, 300 kilometers from home. But when the coronavirus resurfaced in August, the position was cut. This week, as infection cases spiked, restaurants throughout Italy were ordered to shut at 6 p.m., dealing a further blow to jobs.

Mr. Palumbo said his sole hope had been to move to Italy’s more prosperous north. But his finances are so thin that he can’t afford the train ticket or rent there. So he is staying put.

“I have energy, and I know how to roll up my sleeves at any sort of job,” Mr. Palumbo said. “But everything is stuck, and my hands are tied.”

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Credit…Sabine Mirlesse for The New York Times

France

Elise Lauriot Prevost took a gamble when she decided to pursue a master’s degree in human rights two years ago.

Friends in her undergraduate class of 2018 had found jobs quickly in an economy that was finally on an upswing after Europe’s financial crisis. But in the competitive world of humanitarian work, earning an advanced degree seemed like the best way in — even if it meant thousands of euros in student loan debt.

The bet didn’t pay off.

Today, Ms. Lauriot Prevost, 23, is grappling with how to pay back over €90,000 — more than $100,000 — in university tuition after her applications for more than 70 jobs hit dead ends.

“I went to grad school to further my career, and now I’m graduating in the middle of a pandemic,” said Ms. Lauriot Prevost, who received her master’s degree at the Paris Institute of Political Studies in June.

When an internship at a Paris law firm surfaced, she grabbed it. The victims’ rights cases there are the type she wants to handle, and her workload of 75 hours a week is about that of a full-time lawyer. Yet the pay, €600 a month, hardly makes a dent in her debts.

Ms. Lauriot Prevost faces an additional financial burden after moving from her grandparents’ home into a small apartment during France’s national quarantine, so as not to endanger their health.

To earn extra cash, she babysits occasionally and would tend bar at night if she could. But her current workload leaves her exhausted with little time to spare.

“I’m super stressed. I need to find a job immediately to be able to pay my rent and my loans,” she said. “But I absolutely don’t have any free time — even to apply for jobs.”

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Credit…Myrto Papadopoulos for The New York Times

Greece

Christina Penteridou feels that she has no future in Greece.

Ms. Penteridou, 21, graduated in July with a filmmaking degree from the University of Westminster in London, and was directing her first independent film, a fantasy-thriller, when the coronavirus hit. She returned to her hometown, Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, in March and began looking for entry-level production jobs.

But the search is so grueling that she is searching for ways to leave her country again.

“Greece can’t offer me a future,” said Ms. Penteridou, who was proud to have established an independent life in London during the last three years. Now, she is unemployed and living again with her parents.

Greece had just started to recover from a decade-long financial crisis when the pandemic delivered a fresh blow. Some of the nearly half a million young Greeks who left to find jobs were returning as an improving economy created new opportunities — including in long underfunded areas like the arts.

But jobs in those sectors were among the first to dry up in the latest crisis.

By the time Ms. Penteridou began looking in Greece, many productions had stopped. Those that resumed cut the numbers of people on set.

“They don’t have money to spare for someone in an entry-level position, especially at a time like this,” Ms. Penteridou said.

She recently did a photo shoot for a clothing brand to earn income, and will soon teach film seminars to young people. But the pay is so thin that she is looking for work as a waitress while she remains in Greece.

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Credit…Elena Heatherwick for The New York Times

Britain

When Tariro Madzingira’s marketing job wound down during the pandemic, she knew that landing new work would be a struggle. Many of her peers seemed bewildered about how to navigate an increasingly volatile labor market.

Instead of panicking, Ms. Madzingira, 24, took matters into her own hands.

She returned from London to her parents’ home in Birmingham and enrolled in an eight-week career coaching course. She sharpened her interviewing skills, targeted career planning strategies and strengthened her confidence.

She is now coaching other graduates online for free, helping them hone their career searches and overcome the anxiety that comes with being a part of generation Covid-19.

“A lot of graduates that I’ve spoken to are doing so many applications and feeling really flustered,” Ms. Madzingira said. “I want to help them stop being panicked, and to understand that they do have some control.”

Ms. Madzingira, who is Black, knows what it means to overcome hurdles.

“It’s increased pressure when you know that in the workplace Black people are treated differently,” she said.

She has channeled the pressure into motivation. When a dream job at a creative marketing firm went to a more experienced candidate, Ms. Madzingira took an unpaid online internship at the company instead to get her foot in the door, in the hope of landing a permanent role.

But when she logs off from her internship, she pivots back to working with young people in similar straits.

“It makes me really happy because it’s purposeful work,” she said.

Iliana Magra and Emma Bubola contributed reporting.

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Remote but Inclusive for Years, and Now Showing Other Companies How

From her home in Beaverton, Ore., Jamie Davila leads a team of eight engineers in seven states for the technology start-up Ultranauts. Like millions of other people during these work-from-home times, she relies on popular communication tools like Zoom and Slack.

But Ms. Davila and Ultranauts also work remotely in ways that make them different from most companies. They follow a distinctive set of policies and practices to promote diversity and inclusion among employees.

All video meetings have closed captioning, for workers who prefer to absorb information in text. Meeting agendas are distributed in advance so people who are uncomfortable speaking up can contribute in writing beforehand. Employees are asked daily for feedback, like whether they believe their strengths are valued and if they feel lonely at work.

“The whole idea is to create a safe space that allows everyone to be heard,” Ms. Davila, 36, said.

Ultranauts has been working for years on the challenges confronting so many companies during the pandemic, and probably beyond: how to effectively work remotely, make progress toward diversity and inclusion goals, and build a strong organizational culture.

The company, founded in 2013 by two former roommates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has had a remote work force from Day 1. It was also founded to use the untapped talent of autistic people, who often think and process information differently from the rest of the population. Seventy-five percent of Ultranauts employees are on the autism spectrum.

So the small start-up may offer lessons for corporate America in how to hire, manage and motivate far-flung employees, whose work and careers can suffer without the face time and hallway conversations of office life.

“Ultranauts’ purposeful construction of a workplace that really supports people is extraordinary,” said Susanne Bruyere, academic director of the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability at Cornell University. “Its techniques and tools could absolutely be applied more broadly.”

The start-up’s customers include big companies like AIG, BNY Mellon and Cigna. It began with manual quality testing of websites and apps but has steadily moved to more advanced work like data-quality engineering, data analytics and automated software testing.

When the pandemic hit, Ultranauts, which is based in New York, lost business as a couple of large customers made cuts to conserve cash. But it quickly picked up new work from companies that are accelerating digital projects despite the downturn. The business now has 90 employees, up from 60 a year ago. Its goal is to expand to 200 in two years.

Ultranauts is backed by social-impact investors — which seek financial returns, but not windfalls — including The Disability Opportunity Fund, SustainVC, Wasabi Ventures and Moai Capital. They have invested $5.7 million so far.

The company insists its work force is a competitive advantage. The edge, it says, is not so much that autistic brains are wired for computing tasks but that people on the autism spectrum are a diverse group.

One person may recognize patterns quickly, while another has a more measured cognitive style but arrives at different patterns and ways to fix code. The key lies in harnessing the varied talents of teams.

Meetings are recorded, transcribed and archived not only to accommodate workers who prefer reading to listening but also to foster a more open organization. That extends to the weekly meetings of the six-person leadership team at Ultranauts. The notes of those sessions, including the decisions made and reasons behind them, are published on the companywide Slack channel.

“It is a lot more transparency than most people in business are comfortable with,” said Art Shectman, a co-founder and the company’s president.

Ultranauts’ leaders believe their style of wide-open, explicit communication — no unwritten rules — could benefit any company. Ultranauts is giving away a valued homegrown software product, Biodex, as part of a test to see how widely its tools and practices might take root in the corporate mainstream.

Each employee at Ultranauts has a Biodex profile that states the person’s work, communication and feedback preferences. What is your typical response time to messages — a few minutes, a few hours, same day? If a colleague has constructive criticism, how do you want to receive the feedback — orally or in writing?

Each morning, Biodex sends out a bot message with two questions: How “interactive” — ready to communicate with others — are you feeling today? What’s your energy level today? Workers answer on a 1-to-10 scale.

Rajesh Anandan, a co-founder and the chief executive of Ultranauts, describes Biodex as “a quick-start guide for how to work with a person.”

Ultranauts is letting teams at about a dozen organizations, from big corporations to start-ups, try out a test version of Biodex. If trial runs with outsiders go well, Ultranauts plans to make Biodex a free download on the Slack app store by the end of the year. Other Ultranauts apps, like its program for polling worker sentiment and well-being, would follow.

“We’ve built an engine that unlocks opportunity for people who haven’t had a fair shot before,” Mr. Anandan said. “But if we only do that for ourselves, it won’t have much of an impact.”

Mr. Anandan is a former Bain consultant who switched gears and careers. In 2003, he went to work for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and later started an incubator for social ventures at UNICEF. Both he and Mr. Shectman, a software engineering consultant, had known since their M.I.T. days autistic people who struggled to find work.

Many autistic people do well with the structured coursework of school, earning undergraduate and graduate university degrees. But they often stumble at the first hurdle into the job market — the traditional job interview. They tend to struggle with social interaction, speaking informally and reading the nonverbal cues of communication.

That was the case for Leslie Reis. She holds a master’s degree in software engineering, but had not had a full-time job until Ultranauts hired her last year.

Writing, Ms. Reis explained, is how she communicates best. “For a lot of organizations, that was perceived as something that would be a drawback,” she said in an email, “rather than a way for me to participate more fully.”

Ultranauts does not use work experience to filter job candidates. The company does conduct structured interviews, but hiring is largely based on skills assessments that it has developed to measure traits like the ability to work through new problems and take guidance and apply it. Work simulations are another test.

Tulco, an investment firm in Pittsburgh, hired Ultranauts this year to do data-quality work. Tulco invests in traditional businesses that it thinks can become more efficient and profitable by applying data science and artificial intelligence, but creating those A.I. algorithms requires sifting through troves of messy data.

Ultranauts’ work has impressed Matthew Marolda, executive vice president for data science at Tulco. On one project, its team cleaned up and loaded a vast amount of information into an A.I. model with remarkable speed, days instead of weeks, he said.

“This is a work force with inherent strengths,” Mr. Marolda said. “They’re really good at pattern recognition and really good at detail work.”

Seeking new pools of skilled workers, and prodded by advocacy groups, several companies in recent years have begun programs to recruit and employ autistic workers, including SAP, Microsoft, Ernst & Young and JPMorgan Chase.

Ultranauts is one of a handful of small companies and nonprofits in Europe and the United States that employ mainly autistic workers for jobs in technology. Others include Specialisterne, Auticon, Daivergent and Aspiritech. Ultranauts stands out, experts say, for working entirely remotely from the outset and for developing its carefully crafted combination of digital tools and workplace practices.

Its culture has certainly resonated with Ms. Davila, who is autistic and was hired four years ago, with no formal training in computing. Since then, she has mastered not only programming languages but also skills as a manager.

Ultranauts has also been her ladder to the middle class. “Before I got the job at Ultranauts, I was on food stamps,” Ms. Davila recalled. “Now, I own my own house. And it’s a nice house in a nice neighborhood.”

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Pandemic Imperils Promotions for Women in Academia

EVANSTON, Ill. — Like millions of parents, Kimberly Marion Suiseeya, a political-science professor at Northwestern University, saw her work life upended when her third grader’s school shut down in March. Later, she was demoralized to learn that local schools would not reopen this fall.

But Dr. Marion Suiseeya faced an additional source of stress: her looming all-or-nothing tenure evaluation, which will determine whether she earns a lifetime appointment at Northwestern or must find a new job.

“This year was critical for me to finalize my tenure packet,” she said. “I stare at my computer and try to be productive. And every five minutes my daughter comes in and says, ‘My Zoom link doesn’t work.’”

The pandemic has been brutal on many working mothers, especially those with little leverage on the job. Experts say it may be uniquely unforgiving for mothers in so-called up-or-out fields, where workers face a single high-stakes promotion decision. The loss of months or more of productivity to additional child care responsibilities, which fall more heavily on women, can reverberate throughout their careers.

“Will this disproportionately affect female lawyers, accountants, people in various positions in finance, management, academics, all of whom have up-or-out or winner-take-all positions?” asked Claudia Goldin, an economic historian at Harvard who studies women in the labor market. “I would say yes.”

The angst has been especially evident on some college campuses, which tend to be more fertile grounds for activism than other up-or-out workplaces.

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Credit…Olivia Obineme for The New York Times

At Northwestern, hundreds of female faculty members have pressed the university to alleviate the disruption of the pandemic, but with limited success. “The present is unsustainable,” said Susan Pearson, a tenured Northwestern history professor who has helped rally colleagues to seek more accommodations.

Dr. Pearson, who is divorced and is the primary caregiver for her two children, said parenthood was too often seen in academic settings “as a personal choice” rather than as a societal obligation — “like if you choose to live two hours away from work and you have a long commute, the university shouldn’t have to do anything about it.”

Northwestern, like other universities, initially responded to the pandemic by pausing the so-called tenure clocks of junior faculty members, giving them an extra year to publish academic work that would help them earn the promotion.

But research has shown that stopping the tenure clock is an imperfect policy. According to a study of tenure decisions in economics departments published in 2018, men were substantially more likely to receive tenure at their first job after the university allowed an extension for new parents of either sex, while women were substantially less likely to receive tenure than they were before the policy change.

The reason, said Jenna Stearns, an economist at the University of California, Davis, and a co-author of the paper, is that men appear to devote more of the additional year to academic research, while women appear to spend more of it managing parental obligations.

There is evidence that the pandemic is having a similar effect, with the gender divide in new academic papers skewing more male in recent months.

Several women on Northwestern’s faculty said they doubted that the additional time for tenure consideration would offset the pandemic’s impact on their work.

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Credit…Olivia Obineme for The New York Times

Dr. Marion Suiseeya, who is completing a book that she considers critical to her tenure prospects — about the injustices facing people who live in forests — estimates that she was two months from finishing the manuscript in March, but that it will take her at least four more months to finish now.

She said that she was spending no more than two hours a day on the project, versus the three or four she would spend in a typical term, and that the quality of those work hours had declined significantly.

“I’m literally working in a closet,” she said. “My daughter has different perceptions. She thinks all I do is work. But I work a lot less.”

Dr. Marion Suiseeya intends to come up for tenure in the spring as originally planned because the stress of an unfinished book is too hard on her family and she doesn’t want to prolong it. But she is not sure she’ll be ready.

Instead of an extension, she would prefer additional child care subsidies and a more nuanced evaluation process with less weight on whether her book has been published.

Magdalena Osburn, a geobiology professor at Northwestern, divided days into two-hour shifts with her husband, a fellow research scientist, when their son’s day care facility shut down in March.

“With a 4-year-old, there are interruptions even when it’s your time to work,” she said. “Mommy knows where everything is. Nothing can proceed without Mommy’s permission.”

Dr. Osburn, who submitted her tenure materials this month, said she was down to three or four hours of daily work after the pandemic hit, with much of the time spent figuring out how to teach a lab course online. Though her son’s day care provider reopened in July, her output had been further squeezed by months of unreliable lab access for herself and her students.

In the winter term, she is scheduled to teach two courses online that will again require considerable preparation, she said, and some relief from her teaching obligations would have been far more helpful than delaying the tenure decision.

“I don’t need a clock extension,” Dr. Osburn said. “I need an acknowledgment that this year is trash.”

Other Northwestern professors seeking tenure echoed those concerns, as did a survey of nearly 200 female faculty members by a campus group. The survey also highlighted the tendency of other workplace obligations, such as advising students struggling with emotional stress, to fall disproportionately on women.

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Credit…Olivia Obineme for The New York Times

“Beyond the pandemic, there’s the protests and everything that’s happening with Black Lives Matter,” said Sylvia Perry, an assistant professor of psychology who teaches a course on prejudice and stereotypes. “Students wanted to take time to talk about what’s going on, how it’s impacting them as individuals, because they know I study it, because of my identity.”

Dr. Perry, who is Black, said additional flexibility in her teaching schedule would be “extremely helpful.”

Thus far, however, Northwestern has offered faculty members few across-the-board policies beyond the tenure-clock extension — primarily a subsidized rate for up to 10 days of child care. While it has announced support for alternative work arrangements such as sharing teaching responsibilities, faculty members must consult their supervisors about these options — and many junior faculty members are wary of doing so for fear of being labeled slackers.

In an interview, Kathleen Hagerty, the university’s provost, said there was always a trade-off between blanket policies like the tenure-clock extension, which she conceded could have inequitable effects, and more tailored accommodations that put the onus on employees to arrange them.

“That’s the contradiction,” she said, adding that she generally favored the latter approach. “Maximum flexibility is the university policy. That has been the order from the top: to be as flexible as you possibly can, as empathetic as you possibly can.”

Faculty members say they have been disappointed that there wasn’t more planning for the possibility that schools and child care facilities would not reopen in the fall — or more sensitivity to the challenges.

“I have two young ones at home and a working spouse, though she has definitely taken on the heavy lift and allowed me to focus on Northwestern!” one administrator remarked in an email after Dr. Pearson asked about plans for the fall. The administrator assured her that the university took the issue very seriously.

Unsatisfied — “that set of assumptions and practices is EXACTLY what I am suggesting that NU not perpetuate,” she later told the university’s president by email — Dr. Pearson teamed up with a fellow historian and mother, Amy Stanley, to write a letter to the administration. Among the options they urged the university to explore was paid leave for parents with pressing child care needs and a reduction in teaching obligations.

Both women have tenure and said it allowed them to speak up for more vulnerable colleagues, including assistant professors and faculty members not on the tenure track concerned that their jobs were in danger. More than 200 faculty and staff members signed the letter, but the administration barely acknowledged it, Dr. Pearson said.

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Credit…Olivia Obineme for The New York Times

Dr. Hagerty said that while the administration didn’t respond directly to the letter, it later circulated information to deans about resources available to faculty members, which she said the university might not have done enough to publicize.

Last week, the Organization of Women Faculty, the campus group that produced the survey of female professors, released its own proposals. They included additional child care subsidies and adjustments in tenure standards to “reflect pandemic realities.”

Dr. Hagerty, who said she was willing to take part in a moderated discussion that the group had requested, said the concerns raised in the survey were painfully familiar to her as a longtime professor with three children.

“In my younger days, I didn’t want to ever suggest that I couldn’t do something because I had kids,” she said. “They said, ‘Be department chair, even though your husband is in Washington all week and you’ve got three kids under 10.’ You know, ‘Sure, I’ll do it.’” She added: “It was killing me, but I did it.”

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A Job That Isn’t Hard to Get in a Pandemic: Swindlers’ Unwitting Helper

After the fitness center where Denise Newton worked closed down in April because of the coronavirus, she posted her résumé online to look for a new job. She soon got a call from a company she had never heard of.

The woman who phoned from the company, Heies, invited Ms. Newton to apply for a job as a “local hub inspector.” When she started work in May, Ms. Newton began receiving boxes with Apple watches and laptops in them. Her job was to open the boxes, check the contents and then mail them off to foreign addresses.

But something was off. The boxes were suspiciously plain, even though they included brand-name products. The name on the labels was never Ms. Newton’s. When she asked questions, her new employer stopped responding. In June, she reported Heies to the Better Business Bureau.

It turned out that Ms. Newton had become what is known in security circles as a money mule, an accomplice who, either knowingly or unknowingly, helps international criminal rings move their ill-gotten gains. In Ms. Newton’s case, swindlers appeared to be buying products in the United States with stolen money and then mailing them — using unwitting intermediaries like her to disguise their involvement — to overseas locations where the goods could be resold for cash.

“They really caught me at the perfect time,” said Ms. Newton, 24, who was living with her parents in Birmingham, Ala. “I was just one of those desperate people looking for a job.”

Since the pandemic’s onset in March, the number of criminal schemes relying on money mules has spiked, just when many people have lost their jobs and are vulnerable to exploitation. The volume of schemes has been turbocharged partly by criminals going after enticing pots of money from the U.S. government — specifically, the benefit programs that were set up to help people and businesses hurt by the pandemic-induced economic downturn, the authorities said.

In total, online human resources schemes where criminals pose as potential employers have soared 295 percent from a year ago, while schemes used for money laundering have skyrocketed by 609 percent, according to the security firm ZeroFox.

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Many people who perpetrate these frauds are based overseas, authorities said, so they need to move the money to their home country. Banks and authorities have made it harder to launder money through traditional financial channels in recent years. So these criminals are now increasingly on the hunt for a larger supply of potential money mules just as many newly unemployed people look for work.

“It is something that is escalating because of the current environment,” said Robert Villanueva, a former Secret Service agent who now works on cybercrime intelligence for the security firm Q6 Cyber. “It has become hard to avoid.”

Money mules are not new, and their numbers have risen alongside online fraud more broadly over the last two decades. Some people enter the business knowing it is illegal. Advertisements looking for money mules on the so-called dark net, an anonymous corner of the internet popular with criminals, often acknowledge the illegal aspect of the work.

“Hi. I need an excellent professional bank accounts loader for long term business,” read one ad from May, which was turned up by the dark net research firm Flashpoint.

Yet seven people who became money mules during the pandemic told The New York Times that they had no inkling of what their so-called employer was up to when they began the work. Many had recently lost their jobs and needed to pay the bills. To avoid exposure to the coronavirus, they were also looking for jobs to do from home, just what many swindlers want from a money mule.

Alma Sardas, 21, had been furloughed from her job at a hotel in Fort Worth this spring when she saw a listing on the jobs site ZipRecruiter advertising a work-from-home position as a “virtual assistant” to a businessman in Hong Kong.

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Ms. Sardas sat through a formal interview and spoke with a man who called himself Hermann Ziegler, who said he would be her boss. Once she was hired, she was sent a check for $4,590 to deposit into her bank account. She was told to use some of the money for her expenses and to send the rest from her account to her new employer’s vendors.

Ms. Sardas became skeptical about why the money would need to go through her bank account and called the local police. They explained that she had almost been caught in a classic money-laundering scheme.

“You make yourself so sincere and these people just take advantage of it,” she said, adding that she had shredded the check and reported the incident to ZipRecruiter. ZipRecruiter said it removed the job posting immediately.

The schemes using money mules are varied. Some people who become mules are victims of online romance frauds who make bank and wire transfers for people they believe care about them. Others, like Ms. Sardas, are asked to use their own bank accounts to make financial transactions on behalf of their new employers. Ms. Newton became embroiled in what is known as a reshipping scheme, where the fraudsters buy goods with their stolen money and then use mules to get the products overseas, where they can be resold.

Some of these operations have become well-oiled machines. William Zackery, 64, a substitute teacher in Northern California, began working with a company called SFP Shippers in May. SFP Shippers appeared to have multiple departments, a website and a custom online dashboard that he had to log in to each day.

Mr. Zackery, who was out of work, was enlisted to receive packages with expensive purses and cameras. It was his job to print new labels and ship the goods on to other places across the country. Many mule operations use multiple shipping legs to cover their tracks, security experts said.

At first, he did not think anything was amiss. “I was getting calls two or three times a day from my so-called supervisors,” he said. But when the new employer stopped communicating, “I started doing some research that I should have done at the beginning.”

Mr. Zackery ultimately reported SFP Shippers to local and national authorities; the company’s website has been taken down.

Sometimes people’s identities are used without their knowledge. Over the last few months, Scattered Canary, a Nigerian criminal operation, submitted fraudulent claims for unemployment benefits in at least 14 states and then had the money delivered to accounts that they had set up, in the names of their victims, with Green Dot, a financial services company, according to the security firm Agari.

Scattered Canary then sent the money overseas through Green Dot’s online system, all before the person whose name was used was alerted to the new account, the security firm said.

Alison Lubert, a spokeswoman for Green Dot, said the company works “around the clock and invests heavily to identify, block and address fraudulent activity.”

Jamarle Worilds, the chief of the illicit finance unit of Homeland Security Investigations, a division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said many people who act as money mules “don’t actually understand that they are operating in the space.” He said he had recently received text messages offering him the opportunity to work from home, which he easily spotted as an effort to recruit him as a money mule.

“I’m not sure about how they got my information, but that’s what it’s come to,” he said.

In Ms. Newton’s case, the woman from Heies who called identified herself as Carla Neely. She told Ms. Newton that the company needed “hub inspectors” to move packages for customers. Ms. Newton was pointed to a company website and went through an interview and a formal human resources process before being hired.

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“Congratulations! We were impressed with your interview and would like to extend you a conditional offer for the position of Local Hub Inspector at Heies,” Ms. Neely wrote to Ms. Newton in her hiring letter.

Apart from Apple Watches and laptops, Ms. Newton said, she was also sent odd items, including a pack of sponges and a garbage disposal.

By the time Ms. Newton reported Heies to the Better Business Bureau, the numbers and emails that the company had used were dead. Its website had also been taken down. The perpetrators, who have faced other online complaints, have not been caught.

“I feel scared that I have blood on my hands because I’m in the middle of a scam and I’m also in the middle of a pandemic,” Ms. Newton said. “They pretty much just took advantage of my vulnerability.”

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Unemployment Benefits Are at Heart of a Debate Over Hiring

When Clips & Clamps, a metal forming company in Plymouth, Mich., advertised for a die setter and operator last year, more than a hundred applications came sailing in.

This summer, the company sought to hire another operator, offering $17 to $22 an hour and benefits. After three months, not a single person had responded.

“I received zero applicants,” said Jeff Aznavorian, the company’s president. “I’ve been dumbfounded.”

Mr. Aznavorian, whose grandmother founded the company 66 years ago, has no clear explanation for his hiring troubles. In the Detroit area, there should be plenty of qualified candidates, he said. And Michigan’s unemployment rate was 8.7 percent in July, more than double what it was last summer.

“I’m guessing it has something to do with the extra benefits associated with unemployment,” he said.

The $600-a-week jobless benefit supplement that Congress approved in March as part of the CARES Act has been widely credited by economists with keeping the economy functioning through the coronavirus pandemic. Households used the extra cash to pay rent, buy food and cover medical, utility and credit card bills when many businesses abruptly shut and cars lined up for miles at food banks.

With the supplement, which ended in July, most unemployed workers got more than they had earned in wages; without it, they fell short of their previous income. So did the supplement simply provide a lifeline, or did it discourage people from taking jobs?

The answer has consequences for tens of millions of Americans, particularly those on the lower end of the income ladder; for businesses trying to restore their operations; and for an economy that largely depends on the lifeblood of consumer spending.

There has been striking agreement among conservative and liberal economists who have studied the issue that the $600 supplement has deterred few workers from accepting a job. But the relief is not only a matter of contention among business owners; it is also at the center of an acrimonious debate in Congress that has held up agreement on a new aid package.

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Credit…Sylvia Jarrus for The New York Times
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Credit…Sylvia Jarrus for The New York Times

Democrats insisted on extending the full $600 payment beyond July, while Republicans pushed for no more than $200, arguing that the extra income deterred people from working.

Faced with the standoff, President Trump decided to use federal disaster relief funds to give most jobless workers $300 a week, but officials said the funds would cover only four or five weeks of payments. The issue is likely to continue to resonate through the election campaign.

For most people collecting unemployment benefits, there are simply no jobs. Roughly half of the 22 million jobs that evaporated with the coronavirus outbreak have not yet returned. Freelancers, gig workers, the self-employed and others have also seen their contracts and incomes shrink.

But what about those who declined to return to a previous job, or take a new one?

Turning down a job offer to stay on unemployment insurance is considered fraud and is grounds for losing all jobless benefits. But many states suspended verification checks, and with the flood of claims, keeping track of applicants’ job searching can be difficult.

So can determining the reason for declining a job. A lack of child care or health concerns related to Covid-19 are generally considered acceptable excuses. Making more money on unemployment insurance is not.

On a gut level, the Republicans’ argument makes sense. With the supplement, nearly seven in 10 jobless workers got a bigger payment from the government than from their previous employer, according to one study. On its face, choosing to get more money and not work seems more appealing than settling for less and working.

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Credit…Andrew Mangum for The New York Times

That’s the way Carl Livesay, vice president for operations of Maryland Thermoform in Baltimore, sees it. Before the pandemic, the low unemployment rate made hiring a struggle, but now, even with high unemployment rates, he said, “it’s worse than it’s ever been.”

He has been trying to hire eight people as entry-level machine operators or warehouse workers, paying $12 to $15 an hour.

“Only about 50 percent show up for the interview,” Mr. Livesay said. “Only 50 percent of those that we hire actually show up for work the first day. And of those, 25 percent don’t make it through the first week.”

When he called his 60 employees back to work in early May, he said, some were worried about taking public transportation, so he offered to pay for a round trip by Uber until they felt comfortable. Mr. Livesay, who is on Gov. Larry Hogan’s task force to reopen manufacturing, said he had instituted a range of safety and sanitation measures to protect his workers.

As far as he knows, only one employee, a single father, has been unable to return because of child care responsibilities.

Mr. Livesay is convinced that the $600 supplement made it harder to hire.

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Credit…Andrew Mangum for The New York Times

Within two or three days of the benefit’s expiration, he said, applications tripled. When the government approved the $300 replacement, he said, the numbers began to dwindle, even though most states have yet to start making the payments.

“It’s free money, so they feel they don’t have to work anymore,” he said.

Other employers share his sentiment. One-third of small-business owners surveyed by the National Federation of Independent Business said the supplement made hiring harder.

There are, of course, examples that tell a different story — millions of them. In May, June and July, more than 9.3 million workers returned to a job, forgoing the generous unemployment benefits.

And that story turns out to be by far the most common.

Researchers at Yale University who reviewed scheduling and time clock data for small businesses said, “We find no evidence that more generous benefits disincentivized work either at the onset of the expansion or as firms looked to return to business over time.”

Five other studies by different groups of economists produced the same results.

And in a survey by Franklin Templeton-Gallup, conducted in early August, most people said extra government relief would not keep them from going back to work.

One reason is that people generally look ahead. “The latest results show that Americans rationally understand the greater long-term security of returning to work rather than relying on ongoing government assistance,” said Sonal Desai, chief investment officer of Franklin Templeton Fixed Income.

New research from economists at the University of Chicago and New York University came to the same conclusion. The extra benefits, even if extended, are fleeting. In a recession, the possibility of not getting another job offer after refusing one is scary, as is the likelihood that lower wages and career setbacks could be permanent. Stability is worth a lot.

The desire for security may have something to do with the smaller pool of applicants. Several business owners noted that before the pandemic, labor shortages meant that many new hires were already employed elsewhere. Now, laid-off employees who expect to be rehired may prefer to wait for a callback than switch to a new job.

What the result showed, said Simon Mongey of the University of Chicago, one of the paper’s co-authors, is that “it’s very hard to rationalize why a worker would turn down an offer of returning to a previous employer at a previous wage” even with the $600 supplement in place.

That was what Walt Rowen, the owner of Susquehanna Glass in Lancaster, Pa., saw. He had to furlough most of his 75 employees for 10 weeks, but afterward most returned to their jobs at $10 to $15 an hour. Problems with child care or family health were the main reasons that some did not, he said.

“We didn’t get the feeling that there were very many people at all that made that calculation” about unemployment benefits, Mr. Rowen said.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions, as Mr. Livesay at Maryland Thermoform and some other employers have reported, and they can feed a perception that the preference for benefits over work is more widespread than it is.

Research economists noted, for instance, that dental assistants in Chicago and New York were less likely than coffee shop workers to return quickly. The reason is that dental assistants, because of their specialized skills, know they are hard to replace, while food preparation workers are not.

Some low-paid part-time workers who don’t get benefits like health insurance or retirement savings — or workers with no long-term prospects — may also choose the generous unemployment benefit package.

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Credit…Andrew Mangum for The New York Times

That’s what Bruce Zoldan, chief executive of Phantom Fireworks, based in Youngstown, Ohio, found when he sought to hire hundreds of workers for a one- to three-month stint earning $12 to $15 an hour during the summer fireworks season.

People were interested in a full-time job, he said, but he wasn’t able to offer one.

Mr. Zoldan, whose pyrotechnical razzle-dazzle lit up the National Mall last year as Mr. Trump watched, said, “I certainly understand why people would not want to work this particular July Fourth season in my industry.”

The $600 supplement caused hiring problems, Mr. Zoldan said, but it was also responsible for his best sales on record — because it put money into customers’ hands.

“I do believe that the incentive checks are important right now,” he said. “For the time being, it’s something people need. Those people who bought fireworks for the Fourth of July are also going to restaurants, and spending money that keeps businesses going.”

That is a point that Wall Street analysts and economists continue to emphasize: that getting money to consumers will keep businesses afloat and workers on staff.

Without it, not only will millions of needy Americans suffer, said Janet L. Yellen, a former chair of the Federal Reserve, but “the overall economy could degrade from its current slow rebound in growth to no growth at all.”

Mr. Aznavorian of Clips & Clamps agrees that the extra money has been crucial to millions of families. What he objects to are breakdowns in enforcement, allowing workers who turn down jobs to keep receiving benefits.

He also knows from experience, though, that the desire to work is powerful. His wife, Tara, returned to her part-time job as a medical assistant, giving up hundreds of dollars a week in unemployment benefits.

“She chose to go back to work,” he said. “She hated taking that jobless benefit.”

Jim Tankersley contributed reporting.

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Working From Home Poses Hurdles for Employees of Color

Kimberly Bryant, the founder of the nonprofit group Black Girls Code, recalls the spontaneous encounters with other people of color around the office that gave her a sense of belonging as she forged a career as an engineer. The wave in the cafeteria, the smile in the elevator, the nod in the hallway — for Ms. Bryant, “all would lead to connections that were instrumental in terms of my success.”

Those serendipitous occasions are just a memory, a casualty of the pandemic and the shift of tens of millions of employees from office settings to working from home. It’s also one way in which the rise of the virtual office places special burdens on people of color, according to diversity and inclusion officers as well as many employees.

With fewer connections and less extensive networks than white colleagues to begin with, Black and Hispanic workers can find themselves more isolated than ever in a world of Zoom calls and virtual forums. Assignments end up flowing to people who look more like top managers — a longstanding issue — while workers of color hesitate to raise their voices during online meetings, said Sara Prince, a partner at the consulting firm McKinsey.

“It’s a critical issue, and there is a real risk facing diversity and inclusion in the current environment,” said Ms. Prince, who like Ms. Bryant is African-American. “When the leader is looking for someone to take up the mantle, most of them go to the comfort zone of people who remind them of themselves. This is exacerbated by the virtual office.”

The issues posed by working from home are worsened by the outbreak over all. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, 27 percent of companies put diversity and inclusion efforts on hold, according to a survey by the Institute for Corporate Productivity, a research group.

Without an aggressive effort to counteract the pandemic’s impact on workplace dynamics, workers of color may suffer lasting career damage. “The unmanaged outcome is more isolation, less advancement, more job losses, and a real retrenchment in the progress around diversity and inclusion,” Ms. Prince said.

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Credit…Kaiti Sullivan for The New York Times

Corporations have been a focus for civil rights organizers since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May gave rise to protests and a broader examination of racial injustice.

In part, that focus reflects corporate America’s slow racial progress. Big businesses have made prominent contributions to organizations promoting social justice causes, and ad campaigns have highlighted companies’ engagement with communities of color. But the leadership of Fortune 500 companies continues to skew heavily white and male.

Some specialists on workplace diversity worry that as work shifts to home offices, efforts to advance people of color into executive positions will be blunted. More traditional candidates will end up dominating the conversation, they say, leaving others out.

Evelyn Carter, managing director at Paradigm, a consulting firm, cited a concept called distance bias to describe the dynamic that can occur in the virtual office. “You put more emphasis on people closer to you,” she said. “You don’t have connections where you don’t have proximity, so you maintain relationships with the people you already know.”

When employees gather online, it’s easier for some to fall through the cracks.

It’s harder to tell which employees have shrunk back in their chairs or otherwise withdrawn in virtual meetings, said Ms. Carter, who is African-American, but moderators should pay attention to clues like people with their cameras off and try to draw those participants back into the discussion.

Being visible is critical for people of color in the workplace and harder to achieve in a work-from-home environment, said Joy Fitzgerald, chief diversity and inclusion officer at the drugmaker Eli Lilly.

“To succeed, 50 percent is performance, 25 percent is perception and the other 25 percent, which is a force multiplier, is visibility,” said Ms. Fitzgerald, who is African-American. “But if people don’t know you, they don’t see you. It creates a higher degree of complexity and challenge for underrepresented groups.”

With many companies not expected to ask employees to return to their pre-pandemic workplaces before 2021, the implications of the virtual office for people of color have become an increasingly urgent topic for diversity officers, human resource chiefs and leaders in the Black business community like Ms. Bryant.

“A lot of us have some concerns about the impact on Black and brown communities as companies move to remote workplaces,” Ms. Bryant said. That’s especially true in the technology industry, which has struggled to diversify its heavily white and male work force.

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Credit…Kaiti Sullivan for The New York Times

People of color “have issues with feeling included in tech spaces,” she added. “There’s an added barrier to inclusion within a virtual space.” Black Girls Code, which she runs from Oakland, Calif., promotes the advancement of young women of color in technology jobs, offering training in software programs during after-school workshops and other sessions.

For Ms. Bryant, 53, who worked at the biotechnology company Genentech and other Bay Area operations, the connections that resulted from crossing paths in the hallway, the elevator and elsewhere led to lifelong friendships. There were few Black faces in what she terms a “monochromatic environment,” but out of adversity came deep bonds.

“You could share challenges as well as successes,” she said. “A good portion of those connections are still close.”

Other Black executives recounted similar experiences.

“I know what it’s like to be the only Black person or woman with your title in the room, and you do find that the opportunity to connect in person is helpful,” said Lanaya Irvin, president of the Center for Talent Innovation, a research group that looks at diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

The unexpected encounter may have been replaced by the formal geometry of the Zoom square, but not all experts consider that a bad thing. Tina Shah Paikeday, who oversees global diversity and inclusion advisory services at Russell Reynolds, the headhunting firm, thinks there might actually be some advantages to it.

“Most minorities are left out of informal networks and might not have been invited out for drinks or lunch,” said Ms. Paikeday, who is of South Asian descent. “The Zoom meeting is intentionally planned, and managers feel very intentional about inviting everyone.”

“It’s a great equalizer, and it creates opportunities for affinity group within large organizations,” she said. “It could end up being a good thing for minorities.”

Other diversity and inclusion officers concur with Ms. Paikeday, and emphasize that with leadership from the top, the virtual office can be designed to embrace all employees.

At Lilly, Ms. Fitzgerald has organized online forums in which workers of diverse backgrounds can share concerns and have access to top executives. After the killing of Mr. Floyd on May 25, Lilly convened a companywide one.

“For many Black and brown people, May 25 was a defining event, and we had a day of solidarity,” Ms. Fitzgerald said. “We did a double click on racial justice. It was a learning opportunity, it was a connection opportunity, and it was a call to action.”

It was also a chance for employees to interact directly with the company’s chief executive, David A. Ricks, who kicked off the session. More recently, in mid-August, Lilly held its annual forum for Black and Hispanic employees, drawing 5,000 people for virtual discussions of issues like immigration, racial justice, equity and inclusion.

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Credit…Kaiti Sullivan for The New York Times

Such efforts, she said, will prevent the virtual office from becoming a barrier.

Goldman Sachs’s chief diversity officer, Erika Irish Brown, who is African-American, acknowledged that “these are very isolating times,” but said that in the virtual office “there is a leveling that occurs when everyone has the same-size box onscreen.”

To encourage a sense of connection and ensure that different voices are heard, Goldman has organized a series of meetings aimed at a wide variety of employees.

In the spring, the firm organized a large forum on anti-Asian sentiment, with senior leaders discussing their experiences. It was followed by a global session on racial equity that featured David Solomon, Goldman’s chief executive, moderating a panel discussion on race with three Black partners.

At Dell Technologies, the Black Networking Alliance organized two “moments of reflection” after Mr. Floyd’s killing. Nearly 30,000 employees, including Michael Dell, the company’s chief executive, dialed in to share their feelings and engage in a dialogue.

The Black Networking Alliance is one of 13 employee resource groups at Dell, said Brian Reaves, chief diversity and inclusion officer at the company. Others include Pride, Women in Action and Latino Connection.

“Whether it’s the elevator or the lunchroom, it’s nice to connect,” said Mr. Reaves, who is African-American, but he feels that these groups can take the place of those spots and keep workers from feeling isolated. “You can connect with anybody around the world.”

Whether or not that proves to be the case, it’s clear that the virtual office will endure even after the coronavirus has been conquered. Longstanding practices in areas like recruiting are changing, too, with candidates no longer having to start at headquarters and get to know co-workers of color through a nod or a wave.

“We’ll never go back to where we were before,” Mr. Reaves said.

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New Unemployment Claims Decline, but Remain ‘Alarmingly High’

The government reported on Thursday that nearly 1.2 million workers filed new claims for state unemployment benefits last week. It was the lowest weekly total since March, but signaled the continuing damage that the pandemic is inflicting on the labor market.

An additional 656,000 claims were filed by freelancers, part-time workers and others who do not qualify for regular state jobless aid but are eligible for benefits under a separate federal unemployment insurance program, the Labor Department announced. Unlike the state figures, that number is not seasonally adjusted.

“Over all, the data was modestly better than we expected, a surprising improvement,” said Kathy Bostjancic, chief U.S. financial economist at Oxford Economics. There were declines across nearly all the states, even those where the virus is resurgent.

But jobless claims “remain at alarmingly high levels,” she said, and the stubbornly high number of people collecting unemployment — estimated by economists at 30 million — suggests that “temporary layoffs are becoming permanent.”

Although the number of new claims is down from the stratospheric levels reached in the early days of the pandemic, the million-plus tallies that have continued for 20 weeks in a row are still extraordinarily high by historical standards.

And now that emergency federal supplemental benefits have expired, the newest entrants to join the ranks of unemployed will not be receiving the extra $600 a week that has helped jobless workers pay bills through the spring and early summer.

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Credit…Christopher Smith for The New York Times

While the elevated levels of jobless claims show that businesses are still struggling to keep employees on the payroll, there has been some pickup in hiring. After drooping, job postings at the online jobs site ZipRecruiter rose by 7.4 percent in July and are still climbing, said Julia Pollak, the company’s labor economist.

But the latest economic data is mixed, she cautioned. Surveys from the Institute for Supply Management, for instance, showed that business activity in service industries expanded last month, but that the employment index declined, an indication that many companies are still not bringing back workers.

There were steep increases in joblessness related to the performing arts and other live events in July, Ms. Pollak said.

And announcements of impending layoffs continue to pile in. Ms. Pollak has been tracking plant closings and layoffs that the government requires to be announced in advance. “They are showing that new layoffs are still taking place at an alarming rate,” she said. “Plenty of layoffs are scheduled for August, September and October, as well.”

“Many companies are realizing now that the effects will be much longer than expected,” she said.

On Friday morning, the Labor Department will offer another gauge of the pandemic’s impact: the employment report for July. Economists’ forecasts vary widely, with a consensus pointing to a gain of 1.5 million jobs but some expecting a net loss.

In any case, the figure is expected to be far less auspicious than the June gain of 4.8 million. And even an addition of 1.5 million jobs would be a small fraction of the 22 million lost in March and April, when all but essential businesses closed.

There was a burst of hiring after the lockdown orders were lifted, and it seemed as if the economy might rebound sharply in the late spring. But a coronavirus surge in large states like California, Florida and Texas, and the reintroduction of restrictions, has dimmed those hopes.

“There is a lot of uncertainty this time around,” said Lydia Boussour, senior U.S. economist with Oxford Economics, whose firm estimates that employment dropped last month by 280,000. “The labor market has definitely lost momentum in recent weeks.”

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Credit…Joseph Rushmore for The New York Times

With rising concerns that temporary layoffs are turning into permanent job losses, economists worry what this will mean for workers at the bottom rungs of the labor market — those with the fewest skills and the lowest pay.

Workers in low-skill industries like restaurants and bars will need retraining to be hired in sectors like manufacturing, construction or technology, said Rubeela Farooqi, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics.

“It’s not easy to switch,” she said. “We are at risk of structural damage to the labor market.”

Ms. Farooqi also warned that the mounting number of school closings would make it difficult for parents — particularly mothers — to re-enter the work force, causing more lasting damage to the labor market.

For Curtis Hoover, the freelance designing gig came just in time. His regular state unemployment benefits had run out, as had the weekly $600 supplement that Congress approved to help jobless workers make it through the pandemic. He was still eligible for payments under an emergency extension of benefits for 13 weeks, but the clock was ticking on that assistance as well.

“It couldn’t have come at a better time,” said Mr. Hoover, who got his first assignment this week. “I’m very grateful that I can work in my safe environment, although it’s odd jumping in as a team member when you have never met the team face to face.”

Mr. Hoover, who is 57 and lives in Reading, Pa., lost his job as a graphic designer last year. His search for new work got off to a slow start. He had an interview the week before the shutdowns — and remembers debating whether he should shake hands at the meeting — but it went nowhere. Two other interviews were canceled in the following weeks.

Last month, as the expiration of the $600 supplement loomed, he prepared for the steep cut in income. He pared his spending, canceling Netflix, ending his gym membership, and shopping more carefully at the supermarket.

“I’m in a fortunate position because I paid off my house several years ago,” Mr. Hoover said. “If I had a mortgage, I’d be in deep trouble by now.”

Nelson D. Schwartz and Ben Casselman contributed reporting.

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The Great Au Pair Rush

When the au pair decided to change families, she feared she was taking a major risk.

Since the fall, the Colombian woman in her mid-20s had been working in New York as an au pair, one of about 20,000 young people — mostly women — who come to the United States each year to live with families and take care of their children. Her yearlong contract wasn’t set to expire until late 2020, but one morning in mid-June, an argument with her host dad proved to be the breaking point of a tense home environment in quarantine.

“I can’t take these people anymore,” the au pair texted me in Spanish. “I want to get out of here today.” She reported the situation to her local coordinator and decided to leave, giving her two weeks to find a new family or return to Colombia. She hadn’t the slightest clue where she would end up next.

But the woman’s anxiety turned to surprise a few days later when she checked her email — she already had dozens of families across the country asking for interviews. Normally, the demand for au pairs already in the United States is not nearly as high, but something had changed: On June 22, the Trump administration issued an executive order suspending many foreign work visas at least until the end of this year. The order included the J-1 visa program, under which the au pair program, managed by the State Department, is categorized.

While the coronavirus pandemic had already made international travel difficult for many, the visa restrictions confirmed that new au pairs preparing to come to the United States wouldn’t be able to enter the country. The American families expecting them, often with working parents relying on the program as their primary source of child care, have been left scrambling to find replacements.

I spoke to nearly a dozen au pairs now in the country, and read the testimonies of many more on social media. They asked that their names not be used for this story, because they feared retaliation.

Many host parents have taken to unofficial forums on Facebook and other sites as an additional way to search for potential matches. That has created a frenzied social-media rush to woo the dwindling number of au pairs in the country who are still available.

“Pretty much everyone is saying it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll get an au pair,” said Erin Burkhart, a high-school teacher and two-time host mom in the Seattle area whose most recent au pair was set to join her family this summer from Germany. “The search process itself is a full-time job. Right now I will email everyone, I will reach out to everyone. I’ve had about 15 video chats in the last week.”

On the other end, while au pairs entering the program might speak with only two or three families in the initial interview process, in-country candidates are now hearing from 10, 20, sometimes closer to 50 prospective families. Even male au pairs, who often find it harder to match, are having an easy time. “Because they know they don’t have options, they are accepting males for their families too,” said an au pair from Brazil. “It’s not a big deal anymore.”

“Now we feel powerful,” the Colombian au pair said. “For once, we have a choice.”

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Credit…Audra Melton for The New York Times

Though administered by the State Department, the au pair program is operated by a network of private agencies (Cultural Care, Au Pair Care and Au Pair in America are a few big ones) that are in charge of vetting and matching au pairs with host families before they even set foot in the United States. On the ground, au pairs and host families deal more directly with local child care consultants, or L.C.C.s — regional counselors for the agencies who oversee day-to-day issues that arise in households.

If an in-country au pair wants to rematch, or switch families later on, her request must first be approved by the L.C.C. and the match ultimately approved by the agency.

But many introductory conversations are often carried out via unofficial channels — Facebook, WhatsApp and personal referrals between au pairs and families — to streamline the process. In recent weeks, these unofficial networks have become inundated.

Many in-country au pairs are now telling interested hosts that they are only willing to match in exchange for certain assurances, such as a personal car or payment upward of $400 a week. The minimum stipend for au pairs is $195.75 a week for a maximum of 45 hours of work, which is set by the State Department.

Host families have taken note of the new dynamic, too: Perusing some Facebook groups in mid-June, I found posts announcing benefits like unlimited public transportation passes, new cars, access to beach houses and skydiving trips, and double the pay. “We’re offering a 2000 USD sign-on bonus,” one parent wrote.

Not all host families are advertising perks, though, and not all au pairs are seeking them out. Coming from difficult working conditions with her first host family — including verbal abuse, additional chores like housecleaning and dog-grooming, and long hours for no extra pay — the Colombian au pair’s top priority was finding a family that would be the best fit.

Many host families feel similarly that the match must be right. “Offering benefits is fine, but people should not lose sight of the spirit of the program, which is cultural exchange and having an au pair join your family,” Ms. Burkhart said. “You’re going to eat dinner with this person regularly, spend holidays and vacations together for a year. It’s important to find a good fit.”

The current shortage of in-country au pairs caused by the one-two punch of quarantine and visa restrictions has further highlighted the lack of affordable child care in America, to the point where young foreigners expecting a year or two of cultural exchange have become lifelines, often unintentionally, for two-earner couples hoping to keep both their jobs.

When the order was officially announced on June 22, au pairs from around the world, preparing to leave home for a year or longer in the United States, saw their dreams crushed.

“I was honestly heartbroken,” said Kristina Kobzeva, 23, from Kazakhstan. “My mom told me that I can’t wait so much time until next year, that I’ll have to quit the program and get married if the borders won’t be reopened this year for au pairs.”

Au pairs pay fees to participate in the program, navigating a complex web of foreign recruiters, satellite offices and U.S. agencies that vary on a case-by-case basis. Including expenses associated with the J-1 visa application, the total out-of-pocket enrollment cost for au pairs usually hovers between $1,000 and $2,000, much of which is often nonrefundable. “I worked at least three months nonstop, two jobs, in order to save the money for the program,” Ms. Kobzeva added. “Now I’m literally in the middle of nowhere with no idea what to do.”

Enrollment for American host families is more straightforward: Between agency program fees and required au pair expenses (such as weekly stipends, travel and food, and up to $500 toward a mandatory education requirement), the total minimum cost of the program is around $20,000 a year, regardless of the number of children in the family. If a family pays only the minimum, it’s affordable when compared with traditional child care options.

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Credit…Ting Shen for The New York Times

When the match is a good one, families and au pairs can come away with long-lasting relationships. “Child care is one aspect of it, but we’ve really appreciated the cultural exchange component,” said Dawn Gile, a lawyer and host mom in Maryland. “We were going to travel to Europe to go visit our former au pairs. We keep in touch with them, our girls had this exposure to foreign languages, culture, food — they’ve been so enriched by the au pair program.”

But the primary motivation, by far, for most families to host an au pair is the flexible and affordable child care. Now, as the coronavirus threatens to keep schools and day cares closed, and as traditional babysitting becomes complicated in a socially distanced world, live-in child care is even more appealing. That’s especially the case for essential workers — physicians and other health professionals, in particular — who rely on au pair support to maintain long hours during the pandemic.

Nearly a month after the initial rules were issued, the State Department announced that some au pairs — namely, those caring for the children of medical professionals involved in the fight against Covid-19, or children with medical or other special needs — would be granted an exception to the visa restrictions rule and be allowed to enter the country.

Military families, often on the move, are also among those most affected by the rule. “It’s frustrating in a lot of ways because military spouses try so hard to maintain a career despite the impact of their spouse’s service,” said Ms. Gile, whose husband is in the military and who also serves as president of the Military Spouse JD Network. Now that her next au pair is barred from entering the country, Ms. Gile fears the lack of child care will affect her ability to keep working. “This is just another setback in trying to maintain a career,” she said.

“There are a lot of parents who, because of this, will have to quit their jobs,” Ms. Burkhart added.

Rachel Block, a former World Bank economist and experienced host mom, put it more bluntly: “The main substitute is women working less and having to pull back from the work force.

There are fears that the rush of perks offered by families might cloud au pairs’ ability to select kind and properly qualified hosts. While many au pairs are treated with respect, many aren’t, as recent investigations and court cases have shown.

“Very soon, au pairs realize that while you can have a great, amazing relationship with a family, they are your boss, and you are their employee,” added the Colombian au pair. “You are not part of the family.”

Au pairs have reported working far more than 45 hours per week, and being berated by host parents; some have seen their food restricted, or their activities monitored by surveillance cameras. Afraid of being sent home early, many suffer in silence.

A Brazilian au pair in New Jersey who said she was verbally abused daily by her host’s children and was “basically a maid,” was afraid to ask for a switch. “There’s a lot of stories about girls getting kicked out of the house when they ask for a rematch,” she said.

When she reported the situation to her local agency counselor, she was told in an email to work things out or she would likely be sent home. Only after the host mom approved the rematch a month later, the au pair said, did the agency agree to facilitate a change.

These experiences are far from uncommon. A 2018 investigation by several labor-rights groups argued that the J-1 au pair program is a work program with little real opportunity for cultural exchange, and that au pairs should be protected as domestic workers.

“This is an employment relationship. The law has upheld that to be the case,” said Rocío Ávila, a senior lawyer with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, one of the co-authors of the report. In December 2019, a Massachusetts court ruled that minimum-wage laws applied to au pairs in that state. As a result, in Massachusetts, the weekly cost of a full-time au pair rose from the roughly $200 minimum stipend ($4.35 per hour for 45 hours) to more than $500 in weekly wages, after deductions for meals and lodging.

“I think it’s the sponsor’s role to set the expectations of both the au pair and the host family,” said Jean Quinn, the director of Au Pair in America, an agency. “What we want are both families and au pairs to come with the right expectations. It doesn’t do anybody any good if that’s not the case,” she added. “I think we do a very good job at making it clear that this has to work for both sides in order for it to be a successful placement.”

Also key to au pair protections, labor advocates and some host parents like Ms. Block have argued, are more government regulation, know-your-rights education for incoming au pairs, and a more streamlined system for complaints, independent of private agencies.

As the matching frenzy continued, the Colombian au pair narrowed her dozens of options to just a handful of families. After her fourth day of nonstop interviews, she was triumphant. “I have a family!” she announced, smiling from ear to ear.

Ms. Burkhart was one of a few host parents who could say the same. “We just signed our au pair tonight :)” she wrote in an email.

The au pair was glad, in the end, that she hadn’t let herself be wooed by promises of cars or beach houses or more money, which could have been deceiving — because even for a complicated program that involves so many different actors, everything ultimately comes down to the quality of the match. “My sense is that this is a family that’s really going to care about me,” she said. And because she was here now, she could work with that.

Jordan Salama (@jordansalama19) is a writer whose essays and stories have appeared, most recently, in The New York Times, National Geographic and Smithsonian.

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A Rush to Use Black Art Leaves the Artists Feeling Used

The streets of New York were crowded with protesters when Shantell Martin received an email from an ad agency last month.

M:United, a firm owned by the global advertising company McCann, wanted to know if Ms. Martin, a Black artist, would be interested in creating a mural about the Black Lives Matter movement on Microsoft’s boarded-up Fifth Avenue storefront. And could she do it, the email said, “while the protests are still relevant and the boards are still up, ideally no later than this coming Sunday?”

Several other Black artists received the same email. In an open letter to Microsoft and McCann, Ms. Martin and the other artists described the invitation as “both shocking and somehow predictable.” They also wrote that it “betrays a telling and dangerous opportunism.”

“In their rush to portray a public solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, companies risk reinscribing what got us all here: the instrumentalization and exploitation of Black labor, ideas and talent for what is ultimately their own benefit and safety,” the group wrote.

The efforts of major companies to publicly support the protests against racism and police brutality have rung hollow for some Black workers in creative fields.

Artists, models, designers, copywriters and others said they had been drafted to lend legitimacy to companies that fail to live up to principles of diversity and inclusion. They said they had been pigeonholed for roles in ad campaigns or penalized when they raised objections about efforts they felt were insensitive, and had been underpaid, or not given proper credit for their work.

After Ms. Martin posted on Instagram on June 6 about the mural request, several McCann employees told her that the ad agency had reached out to her and other artists despite some internal objections about how the project was being handled, she said in an interview. Both Chris Capossela, the chief marketing officer of Microsoft, and Harris Diamond, the chief executive of McCann, apologized publicly to Ms. Martin on Twitter.

The language used in the email to Ms. Martin “was flat out wrong,” Mr. Diamond wrote. Microsoft said in a statement that the message was “an unacceptable mistake” and that the company took “full accountability.”

A group of marketing professionals, Lexie Pérez, Julian Cole, Stephanie Vitacca and Davis Ballard, began tracking the flood of company statements of solidarity in an open Google Slides document that they released on June 5. They noted that companies often seemed to be “seeking participation trophies” and trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement with “empty and vague platitudes,” providing no concrete plans for change and ignoring complaints of inequality internally.

“This is the current issue of the day,” said Sonya Grier, a marketing professor at American University. “It has become almost standard for companies to jump in, because everyone expects them to have some kind of social presence explaining how they align on race.”

So-called protest art has appeared on the doors and boarded windows of upscale brands like Free People, 7 For All Mankind and Hugo Boss. Scores of companies participated in #BlackoutTuesday on Instagram last month, posting black squares on their feeds with captions expressing solidarity with the movement.

But consumers are increasingly sensitive to how companies express their positions. Twenty percent of U.S. adults surveyed in late June said they would stop buying from a company deemed to be acting hypocritically on the issues of police violence and racial injustice, the polling and market research firm Opinium said last week.

After the publishing giant Condé Nast and the website Refinery29 publicly backed the Black Lives Matter movement, they faced accusations of mistreating employees of color. Leaked grooming guidelines for store employees of the Australian fashion label Zimmerman, which recently denounced racism and quoted Archbishop Desmond Tutu on its Instagram account, were found to discriminate against Black women who wear their hair naturally.

In a statement, Zimmerman said it condemned racism and was “determined to be part of meaningful and positive change in the global fashion industry.”

Ifeoma Ozoma, a former manager for the image-sharing web service Pinterest, said on Twitter that she and another Black woman had recently left the company after they were subjected to racist and sexist behavior. That behavior included negative feedback from a manager after Ms. Ozoma pushed back against the promotion of plantation weddings on the platform, she said.

The company said in a statement that it planned to diversify its board and commission an external review of employee pay.

Many creative workers are self-employed and are not protected by human resources departments or represented in corporate surveys. Many independent Black artists, like Ms. Martin, said they were frequently asked to provide input on diversity initiatives, but were not compensated as consultants.

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Credit…Maggie Shannon for The New York Times

Last month, the fashion designer Dionne Clouser saw a design from her Dionne by T brand replicated on the Instagram account of the fast fashion label Pretty Little Thing. She had seen her work borrowed without credit before, but this time, the theft seemed especially brazen. Just a few months earlier, Ms. Clouser said she had turned down an offer to be a brand ambassador for Pretty Little Thing.

But as a small-business owner with limited funds, she opted not to take on the far larger company in court. Pretty Little Thing declined to comment.

“I’ve gotten used to it, but it leaves a bad taste for me,” Ms. Clouser said.

Lydia Okello, a Black queer influencer who uses the pronouns they and them, said they also felt powerless pushing back against large fashion companies. Mx. Okello received an offer from Anthropologie of a free outfit if they published content on Instagram and provided several images to the company for a social media campaign pegged to Pride month. Mx. Okello responded with their standard rates, but said the producer who had reached out repeatedly evaded their request for payment — treatment that they did not believe a straight, white influencer would have experienced.

URBN, the company that owns Anthropologie, said in a statement that it “handled our overture to Lydia poorly.” The company said it was evaluating how to make future interactions with influencers more transparent and respectful while clarifying guidelines for compensation.

“I’ve worked as a Black creative all my adult life, and I’ve noticed that there’s often an assumption that you should feel flattered that this large company is reaching out to you, that it has noticed you, and that reflects a greater cultural narrative that the creative work of marginalized groups is less valuable,” Mx. Okello said. “It’s like, ‘Just shut up and take it, or we’ll find someone else.’”

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Credit…Hannah Rebecca Ackeral

Exacerbating the problem is a lack of diversity in leadership roles in the industry. Ad agencies and marketing executives from companies such as General Motors, McDonald’s and Walmart vowed in a public letter to address the issue.

But the messages of solidarity, while encouraging, “ring hollow in the face of our daily lived experiences,” according to a letter signed by hundreds of Black advertising employees in June.

“You have extremely limited people of color in positions of authority at the same time that the marketplace itself is becoming much more diverse,” said Judy Foster Davis, a marketing professor at Eastern Michigan University, who has studied the troubled history of brands like Aunt Jemima. “Then, over the past few years, you see all sorts of marketing blunders.”

Recent gaffes have included racist ads and images from Volkswagen, Dove and H&M.

Saturday Morning, a creative collective focused on racial justice, which has worked with companies like Procter & Gamble and Spotify, issued a call last month for brands to “take bold steps.”

“In order for us to find true equality, there has to be sacrifice and not just sympathy,” said the group of Black advertising executives behind Saturday Morning. “Otherwise this moment will fade away like so many before it.”

Elizabeth Paton contributed reporting.

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Want More Diversity? Some Experts Say Reward C.E.O.s for It

When Charles E. Jones, the chief executive of a large Ohio-based utility, realized that his senior executives weren’t fully behind his push to hire and promote people of color and women, he decided to do something to get their attention.

In 2018, Mr. Jones linked 10 percent of annual bonuses for himself and other top executives at his company, FirstEnergy, to diversity goals, and increased the number to 15 percent the next year. “I’ve got experience that suggests that if you tie compensation to the things you want to have accomplished, you are much more successful at getting them accomplished,” he said.

Mr. Jones’s approach is striking because it is extremely rare in corporate America. But he and other management experts say it shouldn’t be. For decades, companies and top business schools have preached the gospel of tying pay to all manner of business goals, like stock price performance and profits.

Yet just 78 of roughly 3,000 companies said fulfilling diversity goals determined some portion of chief executives’ pay, according to an analysis of public pay disclosures by Pearl Meyer, a compensation consulting firm. Of those, only 11 revealed the share of pay affected by fulfilling diversity goals, and 21 gave some details of their diversity goals.

The issue has gained new salience in recent weeks as businesses across the United States have declared support for Black Lives Matter, pledged to hire more people of color and ditched decades-old brands like Aunt Jemima that were built on racist imagery.

Charles A. Tribbett III, a consultant who advises large corporations about hiring and compensation, said many executives and board members were discussing whether to link pay to diversity goals, a change he endorsed. “I believe the time is now for that discussion to be turned into action,” said Mr. Tribbett, a managing director at Russell Reynolds.

Deb Lifshey, a managing director at Pearl Meyer, agreed that there was growing interest in the practice, though she said it was too early to say whether it would be sustained. “Whether or not this will have a material impact on how much compensation they’re making is hard to tell,” she said.

Only five of the Fortune 500 companies have Black chief executives, and some of the most successful American companies haven’t significantly increased the number of African-Americans in their senior ranks.

Making diversity targets part of compensation and disclosing them would not just give top executives a financial incentive to hire and promote more Black and Latino people, but also provide a public scorecard that employees and shareholders could use to determine whether companies were following through on their commitments.

FirstEnergy paid out nothing on the diversity-related part of the bonus in 2018 after the company fell short on two of three targets. Last year, it paid out the segment of the bonus for meeting two of the goals: hiring women and people from underrepresented ethnic groups for professional jobs, and including them as candidates in succession plans. But executives fell short on a measure related to how employees responded to questions about diversity in a company survey.

Mr. Jones said most people at his company did not discriminate against Black and brown people, but he believes some do. “Quite frankly, in a company like ours, which is 90 percent white, you actually have outright racism that still exists, that we have to deal with,” he said.

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Credit…FirstEnergy
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Credit…Kristoffer Tripplaar/Sipa USA

Even as an old-economy business like FirstEnergy has embraced a relatively progressive policy, other businesses widely considered to be liberal bastions, like Google and Facebook, have not.

In 2018, Zevin Asset Management, a Boston-based investment firm that says it takes a “socially responsible” approach, proposed that Google connect some executive pay to diversity, among other measures, but the measure was soundly defeated.

“We saw companies saying a lot about how they want to move the needle in the tech space but not disclosing a lot or setting goals,” Pat Miguel Tomaino, a director at Zevin, said. “Nothing trumps having a part of your compensation at risk on a key business initiative.”

Top tech executives are accustomed to having formal targets built into their pay. Last year, Google’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, received a compensation package valued at $280.6 million. Just over $121 million of it came in units linked to the stock performance of Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

Founders like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Alphabet do not receive cash bonuses or stock-based compensation. But they control so much of their companies’ voting stock that they could pretty much single-handedly approve the inclusion of diversity targets in executive compensation. Facebook, for example, valued the 2019 compensation of its chief operating officer, Sheryl K. Sandberg, at $27 million.

Facebook said it had made “bold goals to build a more diverse and inclusive workplace,” adding that leaders were evaluated on inclusion and recruitment in their performance reviews. Google declined to comment.

That said, some tech companies have linked pay and diversity.

Achieving diversity goals helps determine one-sixth of the cash bonus of Microsoft’s chief executive, Satya Nadella, a bonus that last year totaled $10.8 million. “This is an important demonstration of executive commitment to creating an inclusive workplace, and we find this helps ensure there is shared accountability to make progress,” the company said in a statement.

Uber, which in the past was criticized for a cutthroat work culture, perhaps goes further than any other company. Diversity targets are embedded in the stock compensation of its chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, accounting for a fourth of his performance-based stock awards. Uber valued his performance award for last year at $6.25 million. The goals include achieving growth in the percentage of workers who are from underrepresented ethnic groups at the senior analyst level and above over a three-year period that has not ended.

Bo Young Lee, Uber’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, said the policy had “really crystallized what we’re trying to achieve, and gave something for us to pivot off of, and explore other aspects of our diversity and inclusion strategy.”

But diversity-related goals may end up having less bite than advertised because they might be relatively easy to achieve, which can be hard to evaluate when companies do not disclose details about their goals. In addition, even companies that use this approach do not let it determine a sizable portion of overall pay.

Of course, there are plenty of other ways to bolster the hiring and promotion of people of color and women, experts say. Regularly disclosing in meaningful detail how the company is performing on important diversity metrics can help employees hold senior executives accountable. Mr. Tomaino, the activist investor, says Google is a leader in providing useful information in its diversity report. The report, for example, shows that Black employees are more likely to leave than the average employee.

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Credit…Nina Westervelt/Bloomberg

Some companies, like JPMorgan Chase, the country’s largest bank, claimed they could do more without strict goals. Joseph Evangelisti, a JPMorgan spokesman, said the bank had increased the number of Black professionals — managing and executive directors — by more than half over the last four years.

The board and its top leaders do not “believe in using a simple, formulaic, short-term approach,” he said, “because they’re looking to our leaders to develop and implement strategies that provide long-term, sustainable outcomes to drive diversity, equity, inclusion and, ultimately, success of our diverse employees.” JPMorgan did not say what percentage of professionals were Black employees.

But activist investors say they will keep pressing for diversity targets for senior executive pay. “The issue here is that we’re in a multiethnic country where wealth is controlled by white people,” Mr. Tomaino said. “It’d make sense for companies that possess big levers to help create change.”

Mr. Tribbett, the consultant, said that even though companies might disclose and meet diversity goals, it was particularly important to look at whether this meant they were succeeding in hiring and promoting Black employees in particular.

“What we’re trying to achieve right now is an increase in African-Americans into the boardroom and into the C-suite and up the ladder of the company,” he said. “So when a C.E.O. metric is positively achieved, but within that metric the Black portion of it still has not been achieved, then I think we have failed.”