Image: An Asian cashier bags the goods of a White mom at a Walmart checkout counter, her young daughters stand nearby. Image courtesy of Walmart corporate, CC BY 2.0.

The coronavirus pandemic has heightened the long-standing inequalities service sector employees face as they grapple with dangerous and potentially deadly working conditions. Yet new research shows that these inequalities have deep structural and interpersonal causes, which disproportionately impact workers of color and stand to endure beyond the current public health crisis. 

Using survey data from The Shift Project, sociologists Adam Storer, Daniel Schneider, and Kristen Harknett suggest racial and ethnic discrimination within and across service-sector firms shapes working conditions. The survey asked participants about scheduling practices, the amount of time off received, and various other human capital measures such as education and job tenure. Unlike other datasets on job quality, these data include matching responses from both hourly workers and their supervisors in more than 100 retail and food service firms. The big takeaway: the authors find non-white workers experience greater exposure to unpredictable and inflexible working conditions.

The data reveal that non-white workers are concentrated in positions with low job quality indicators. For example, non-white workers are more likely to work consecutive closing and opening shifts, or “clopening” shifts. Additionally, authors find that racial and ethnic tensions between employees and supervisors diminish non-white employees’ job quality. Non-white employees with supervisors of a different race or ethnicity reported a 7% higher likelihood of canceled shifts, difficulty getting time off, and clopening shifts. Unsurprisingly, these data suggest work quality disparities are worse for women, even more so for women of color, a finding supported by past research on gendered differences in earnings. 

Storer and colleagues also illuminate the ways individual relationships maintain these job quality disparities. Tense and racialized interpersonal relations between supervisors and workers are one of those, suggesting job quality is increasingly stratified by “racial discordance” within the workplace. What is more, the inequalities service sector workers face — like unpredictable scheduling and meager fringe benefits — have real impacts on health outcomes, like poor sleep and psychological distress. While the coronavirus vaccine might alleviate some of the immediate health risks frontline service sector workers face, the inequalities embedded in the structure of their work itself may prove far more resistant to change.