A sign hangs on the door of Central Street Farmhouse requiring masks to enter. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The pandemic shined a lens on existing racial and gender disparities in Maine and throughout the country during the pandemic, highlighting large differences in access to jobs and benefits such as the ability to telecommute, economists said on Tuesday.

They said there are three groups of workers in the COVID-19 economy: those who lost their jobs and faced increased economic insecurity, those classified as essential and who faced increased health risks and those who were able to continue working from the safety of their homes. Women and people of color were often concentrated in low-wage work and were more at risk of job losses and COVID-19 exposure at work.

“It’s important to note that Black, Latinx, Native American and low-income workers generally are the least likely to have been in that third category of those able to work safely at home,” David Cooper, a director at the liberal Economic Policy Institute, said.

A disproportionate number of Black and Hispanic women worked in front-line industries like leisure and hospitality, state and local government, education and health services where they were in contact with others. As of September 2021, Black Mainers were twice as likely than whites to have contracted COVID-19, according to a report released last week by the Maine Center for Economic Policy, which also held the press briefing on Tuesday.

Black and Hispanic workers were far less likely to be able to telework between May 2020 and April 2021, Cooper said, with only 1 in 5 Black workers able to work from home compared to 1 in 4 white workers and only 1 in 6 Hispanic workers.

Maine is working to better understand how legislation impacts racial disparity. It is one of nine states that is planning a pilot program using racial impact statements in the legislative process.

“The pilot is a huge first step,” Maine House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, said. “The impact will be giving the Legislature the knowledge to base a decision off of.”