Virginia lawmaker hopes new posthumous diploma law will help grieving families and students
Graduation is coming fo approximately 90,000 Virginia high school seniors. For some, that milestone is cut short by tragedy.
When a high school student dies before graduation, it can be difficult for a family to obtain a posthumous diploma.
State lawmakers this recent General Assembly session passed House Bill 1514 to require the Board of Education to waive certain graduation requirements for senior students who die before graduation. The bill allows posthumous diplomas to be awarded at the request of parents if the student was in good standing in their senior year.
However, these waivers can still be considered on a case-by-case basis, according to the bill.
Previously, state code only required such diplomas to be awarded if they were initiated by the Board of Education or requested by a local school board.
Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, introduced the measure after the mother of a murdered Thomas Jefferson High School student reached out for assistance with her son’s goal to receive his high school diploma, Adams stated. Daveon Elliot was fatally shot in November 2021.
The family was told the school could only award a certificate of completion because he had not met the outlined graduation requirements, Adams stated.
Elliot’s senior yearbook picture had already been taken, the mother told WWBT NBC 12, so she said he should also receive the diploma.
Adams thought a line in the state code could be used for an exception to the requirements. But she said her appeals to the school division superintendent, governor and secretary of education were unsuccessful.
As the bill progressed, Adams said she heard from other families who were thankful for the bill, which unanimously passed both chambers of the General Assembly.
Amber Holsinger-Staton is the mother of Nicholas Coleman, a Prince George High School student who died in August 2021, right before his senior year started. Coleman was diagnosed with brain cancer a year prior. He completed work through an individualized education program.
“He was very sick, and he did what he could,” Holsinger-Staton said.
Her family did not get the closure they deserved at Coleman’s would-be graduation, she said. The school told Holsinger-Staton that graduation was a time for celebration and they did not want it to be a memorial, which she said upset Coleman’s peers.
School administrators sometimes worry that commemorative activities could upset students and staff, according to the Coalition to Support Grieving Students, a part of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. But the death itself is what upsets students most, not discussions about the death, according to the coalition, which argues students need to be allowed to plan activities to honor their lost friends as part of the grief process.
“I get that graduation is a time of celebration, but these kids also lost somebody,” Holsinger-Staton said.
Peers can heal through the honoring of deceased students, Adams stated. Commemoration would “add to the occasion and make it more meaningful for all.”
After Coleman’s girlfriend went to the news, Prince George High School offered to leave a seat with flowers and a cap and gown for Coleman at his would-be graduation. Students also had a moment of silence.
Holsinger-Staton was denied what she really wanted — an honorary diploma. The diploma would have given her some closure, she said, adding something should be in place for students who die in junior or senior year. She also believes it would be beneficial if the bill were retroactive.
The bill could be expanded to other high school grade levels in the future, Adams stated.
“If nothing else, for the families going forward, I think it’s the most important thing,” Holsinger-Staton said.
Tammy Gweedo McGee’s son Conner Guido died in a car crash on the night of his homecoming dance in October 2019. He was a junior. His mother adapted the spelling of her last name to reflect her son’s nickname, “Gweedo.”
Guido maintained a 3.7 GPA and was active in many school sports at Tabb High School in Yorktown. It was “heart-wrenching,” she said, to know he could not graduate with his friends.
Gweedo McGee hopes “parents who have been robbed of the opportunity to see their child at graduation” can benefit from posthumous diplomas, as well as empty chairs at graduation, to honor their children.
The school had a celebration of life for Guido on the school soccer field. There were other recognitions that Gweedo McGee requested. She asked to pay for a bench on the soccer field or to plant a tree in her son’s honor, but the school told her they wanted to be consistent with commemorative actions, she said. A friend of Guido’s was also denied a request to allow “honor tassels” similar to club tassels like the National Honors Society and Key Club.
The Coalition to Support Grieving Students suggests commemorative actions such as reading names at graduation, possibly followed by a moment of silence or the designation of a yearbook page in honor of the student. The coalition suggested schools avoid things like naming buildings, planting trees, or placing plaques in school hallways to honor students if they are unable to apply these measures consistently to future deaths.
The school ultimately offered memorial pins for students to wear on their caps and gowns, but they would not allow an empty seat at graduation in case it retraumatized students, Gweedo McGee said.
“I’m not sure that there’s a great adjective for the pain that I felt inflicted upon me unnecessarily by a simple request to honor my deceased son at what would have been his graduation,” she said.
Any student who dies in good standing should be recognized, Gweedo McGee said. She was disappointed in the school district, she added but turned to advocacy to make a difference.
Gweedo McGee has helped pass two bills. Senate Bill 78 required an additional 90-minute parent and student driver education component to the classroom portion of its driver education program. The requirement is for the Northern Virginia area but encouraged outside of that planning district. The bill also requires education about the dangers of distracted driving.
HB 1918 requires driver education to cover the dangers of distracted driving and speeding. It also requires students to provide evidence of a valid driver’s license when applying for a school parking permit, and a standardized application form was created.
Gweedo McGee also created a website to allow teenagers to anonymously report the unsafe behavior of peers in an effort to save lives.
“While I’m left on this Earth, I will never stop honoring my son and using his tragedy to help others,” Gweedo McGee said.
By Darlene Johnson
Capital News Service
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.
Virginia State Police urges safety as summer travel begins amidst tragic loss during Memorial Day weekend
The 2023 Memorial Day weekend has unfortunately led to the loss of nine lives, which included four motorcyclists. The statistical count for this tragic weekend commenced on Friday, May 26, 2023, at 12:01 a.m. and concluded at midnight on Monday, May 29, 2023.
The Virginia State Police participated in the nationwide Operation Crash Awareness Reduction Effort (C.A.R.E.) and the annual Click It or Ticket campaign. Throughout this period, Virginia Troopers registered 771 seat belt violations and 136 child restraint violations.
Colonel Gary T. Settle, Virginia State Police Superintendent, expressed his concern with summer approaching and schools letting out. He emphasized the urgent need for responsible driving and adherence to safety protocols.
All available Virginia State Police patrolled the highways during the four-day Operation C.A.R.E. initiative, aiming to reduce traffic crashes and fatalities due to impaired driving, speeding, and seat belt violations. The initiative resulted in 4,990 speeders and 1,924 reckless drivers being cited, with 89 impaired drivers being arrested. A total of 1,846 traffic crashes were investigated, and 634 commercial vehicles were inspected. The initiative also led to 169 felony arrests and assistance to 1,447 disabled motorists.
Fatal crashes were reported from the City of Richmond, and Henry, Loudoun, Orange, and Shenandoah counties. Loudoun and Henry counties reported two fatal crashes each, while two out of four fatal motorcycle crashes occurred in Loudoun County.
Comparatively, the 2022 Memorial Day Operation C.A.R.E. initiative reported 16 fatalities.
Funds generated from the summonses issued by Virginia State Police are directed towards court fees and the state’s Literary Fund, which supports public school construction, technology funding, and teacher retirement.
Report on Virginia public education standards and policies overdue
Over a four-month period in 2022, Virginia leaders in education and workforce development held a series of meetings to provide recommendations to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration on improving state K-12 education.
However, a report on recommendations from those meetings, which were convened to fulfill the requirements of a 2022 law known as House Bill 938, remains six months overdue, with no explanation for its delay.
Asked about the report last month, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office did not provide an update on its status or why it hasn’t been released. A follow-up request in May went unanswered.
“The administration values the input from public school principals, school superintendents, school board members, and school teachers received both through the [House Bill] 938 workgroup and other feedback opportunities,” said Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter in an April email. “We continue to incorporate this feedback into the policies and actions needed to restore excellence to education and ensure our schools are serving every child. A detailed review of the policies and actions implemented over the last year and the Department’s policy recommendations will be outlined in the report.”
House Bill 938, which passed the General Assembly last year, required the Board of Education, Secretary of Education, and Superintendent of Public Instruction to create a group of stakeholders to evaluate various state policies and performance standards for public education.
Among the goals the group was tasked with evaluating were “promoting excellence in instruction and student achievement in mathematics,” expanding the availability of the Advanced Studies diploma, “increasing the transparency of performance measures,” and ensuring those measures “prioritize the attainment of grade-level proficiency and growth” in K-5 reading and math, and “ensuring a strong accreditation system that promotes meaningful accountability year-over-year.”
A report on the group’s findings and recommendations was due to the House and Senate education committees by Nov. 30, 2022.
During a Feb. 2, 2022 hearing, Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera called the legislation an opportunity for Virginia to develop a strategic plan to ensure public school students are prepared for life and the demands of the future.
“There are a lot of signs that we don’t have that, and that means taking a review of our standards, our curriculum, our assessments to make sure they are best in class and our proficiency levels are aligned with what the economy and democracy requires, and also our accountability system is aligned to make sure that we are holding systems accountable for serving every single child in Virginia,” Guidera said.
During the same hearing, Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, who carried the bill, said the legislation was “part of the governor’s ‘Day 1 Plan’ to empower parents” and a “mission statement as to where we want to take our education system.” She did not respond to interview requests.
Fifteen teachers, principals, parents, superintendents, school board members, and higher education and business experts were convened by the administration for the work group, which met at least four times before concluding its work in November, according to an October 19 report to the Board of Education. The group was also broken into four smaller groups that focused on “Mathematics Excellence and Achievement,” “Advanced Studies Diploma Options,” “Academic Growth and Assessment,” and “School Accreditation and Data Transparency.”
Each topic group met individually and was assisted by members of the Department of Education and the Region 5 Comprehensive Center, which provides assistance to states on education and is funded by the U.S. Department of Education.
According to a Nov. 3 draft provided to the Mercury, some of the work group’s recommendations included providing additional funding for elementary and middle school math specialists, revising state accreditation profiles to make them more accessible, and improving communication about how both learning growth and proficiency contribute to school performance scores.
Members who spoke with the Mercury said they were uncertain of whether there was any opposition to the recommendations after they were submitted.
“The timeframe for the HB 938 group was fairly limited, and so we could only accomplish so much,” said Kimberly Bridges, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University and a member of the workgroup. “But I think there were folks at that table who were more than willing to keep working if the state had asked. But again, it just kind of ended, the report was drafted, and the folks on the working group did what they were there to do.”
A timely report
Members of the work group said the report is particularly timely given that the Board of Education is currently considering new accountability and accreditation systems.
In May 2022, the Youngkin administration released a report calling for “a new path” for Virginia education after student proficiency ratings and test scores on state and national assessments dropped following the COVID-19 pandemic. The administration has blamed changes to school accreditation standards made by prior Democratic-controlled Boards of Education for the declines and, most recently, has proposed changes to how the state scores its schools.
At the same time, the administration has pushed for state education to focus more on workforce readiness, with Youngkin calling for every high school student in Virginia to graduate with “an industry-recognized credential.”
Courtney Baker, director of workforce and training for the Associated General Contractors of Virginia, who served on the Mathematics Excellence and Achievement topic group, said one of its recommendations was for Virginia to focus more on applied mathematics associated with careers such as architecture and engineering, instead of the “standard fast-paced, credit-driven approach.”
Additionally, the group recommended allowing students enrolled in career and technical education courses to qualify for Advanced Studies diplomas. Similar efforts to expand career and technical education in Virginia through legislation failed during the last General Assembly session.
[Read more: Bills to bolster career and technical education falter in General Assembly]
Baker said Virginia is “plagued” by a workforce shortage, pointing to estimates from construction industry groups that more than 250,000 craft professionals will be needed in Virginia by 2026.
“While we continue to hear how important the trades are to the health of Virginia’s economy, we do not see that reflected in current policy,” Baker said. “Students cannot pursue CTE training and qualify for prestigious advanced diplomas, CTE classrooms are in need of additional funding, and we have CTE instructors who are retiring and not being replaced.”
Proficiency vs. growth
Educators and lawmakers have debated for years how student success should be measured and whether assessments of school performance should focus more on student proficiency, as measured on state exams, or evidence of growth in test results.
Most Virginia schools remain fully accredited despite student testing declines
The Youngkin administration has argued for a greater emphasis on proficiency, saying that the inclusion of growth factors in school accreditation rankings has masked deficiencies in performance.
Officials were especially skeptical of the state’s most recent accreditation results, which showed only a few schools fell short of full accreditation despite student declines on standardized tests. Specifically, the number of fully accredited schools dropped from 92% in the 2019-20 school year to 89% for the 2022-23 year.
“This broken accountability system fails to provide a clear picture of the academic achievement and progress of our schools to parents, teachers, and local school divisions,” Youngkin said at the time. Former Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow similarly said the school ratings “fail to capture the extent of the crisis facing our schools and students.”
Both Balow and former Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, who chaired the House Education Committee, told the Washington Post that school accreditation rankings shouldn’t lump together proficiency and growth.
However, many education experts argue both factors are important in determining school success — a conclusion supported by the HB 938 work group, which in its Nov. 3 document stated that “focusing on both proficiency and growth provides an accurate depiction of how schools are performing.”
“The board should ensure that growth and proficiency continue to be included in one combined rate and increased parent-friendly communication surrounding its meaning would promote transparency,” the document says.
Members of the work group recommended the Board of Education “consider a weighted balance” of the two and conduct further investigation on the issue.
“We need accountability that looks at both student growth and students reaching proficiency. If you want to get a holistic picture of what’s happening with learning in schools,” Bridges said. “If you’re only looking at proficiency, particularly after coming out of this pandemic, and all of the impacts that it’s had on kids and their learning … then you’re only getting a piece of the larger picture.”
Members of the work group said they hope the report will be prepared and included as part of the board’s discussions.
Rodney Jordan, a former president of the Virginia School Boards Association who served on the work group, said Virginia has had a long history of educational excellence, but the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated many of the challenges students face.
I don’t want to see the pandemic used as an excuse for allowing opportunity gaps, lack of support for teachers and ill-defined student outcome goals to persist; I want to see those things lessened, frankly deliberately eliminated,” Jordan said.
However, he continued, education leaders must “acknowledg[e] that where students start and where students end can vary from school to school and community to community, and we have to find ways of accelerating academic excellence for all of our children while also finding ways to continue to … raise the bar and ceiling simultaneously.”
by Nathaniel Cline, Virginia Mercury
Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: email@example.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.
Fentanyl crisis prompts Virginia’s deployment of National Guard to aid Texas
In a decisive move, Governor Glenn Youngkin of Virginia has issued Executive Directive Four, deploying targeted resources to respond to the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) request from the State of Texas. This action comes in light of the ongoing southern U.S. border crisis, characterized by increased drug trafficking and human trafficking.
The border crisis, which has turned every state into a border state, has caused significant instability along the U.S. border with Mexico. The supply of illegal drugs, including the highly lethal fentanyl, has sharply increased, resulting in devastating consequences for Virginia families and communities. Shockingly, an average of five Virginians die per day from fentanyl overdose.
Texas, recognizing the severity of the situation, requested assistance from all states and territories through the EMAC. Virginia, being a founding member of the compact, has responded to the call for help. As per Governor Abbott’s request, Virginia will be deploying 100 troops to support Texas in managing the border crisis.
“The ongoing border crisis facing our nation has turned every state into a border state,” Governor Youngkin emphasized. “As leadership solutions at the federal level fall short, states are answering the call to secure our southern border, reduce the flow of fentanyl, combat human trafficking, and address the humanitarian crisis.”
The decision to deploy troops is driven by the intensive resource demands on Texas, the dangers posed by the fentanyl crisis, and the impact of the border crisis on criminal activity in Virginia. Fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid, has become a severe threat to the Commonwealth, with an alarming increase in fatal fentanyl overdoses in recent years. Mexican cartels are also smuggling other narcotics, such as cocaine, methamphetamines, and heroin, across the border.
Texas has already invested substantial resources in border security operations, spending over $4.5 billion since 2021 and recently securing an additional $5.1 billion in funding. The state has deployed its own National Guard soldiers and Department of Public Safety troopers to combat the crisis and adopt a “deter and repel” strategy. This approach involves erecting physical barriers and demonstrating a physical presence to impede border crossings and prevent the smuggling of drugs, weapons, and people.
The recent termination of a public health order has further escalated the border crisis, requiring Texas to increase its resource commitment to address the issue effectively. In response, Texas made numerous requests for assistance through the EMAC, leading to Virginia’s decision to deploy the Virginia National Guard soldiers to support key aspects of Texas’ mission.
Under the executive directive, Virginia National Guard soldiers will be equipped with the necessary resources, including weapons, ammunition, body armor, protective masks, and night vision devices, to assist in their operations. The deployment will remain in effect until September 30, 2023, signaling Virginia’s commitment to assisting Texas during this critical period.
Governor Youngkin’s proactive response to the border crisis and the deployment of troops demonstrates the dedication of Virginia to tackle the supply of illegal drugs, combat human trafficking, and address the humanitarian crisis affecting communities along the U.S.-Mexico border. By joining other states in delivering additional assistance to Texas, Virginia aims to contribute significantly to the collective effort to secure the southern border and protect its citizens.
Governor Glenn Youngkin announces landmark change in state agency hiring practices
On May 30, 2023, Governor Glenn Youngkin announced a landmark change in how state agencies will recruit and compete for talent by eliminating degree requirements, preferences, or both for almost 90% of state-classified positions. The new Commonwealth hiring practices will expand opportunities for Virginians and give equal consideration to all qualified job applicants.
“On day one, we went to work reimagining workforce solutions in government, and this key reform will expand opportunities for qualified applicants who are ready to serve Virginians,” said Governor Glenn Youngkin. “This landmark change in hiring practices for our state workforce will improve hiring processes, expand possibilities and career paths for job seekers and enhance our ability to deliver quality services. Last month, Virginia achieved the highest labor force participation rate in nearly ten years, demonstrating the Commonwealth’s sustained workforce developments.”
“Changing how we think about workforce planning, talent acquisition, and leveraging knowledge, certifications, technical skills, apprenticeships, and work experience into measurable business results has been a Day 1 Workforce Development priority for this Administration,” said Secretary of Administration Margaret “Lyn” McDermid. “As an employer, the state government has one of, if not the most diverse occupational portfolios in Virginia. Our employees design, build, manage, and sustain public services across hundreds of lines of business, and giving equal consideration to all job applicants, including those who have experience solving real-world problems, is a smart business practice.”
“This is great news for the state government and all job seekers. By giving equal consideration to applicants with an equivalent combination and level of training, knowledge, skills, certifications, and experience, we have opened a sea of opportunity at all levels of employment for industrious individuals who have the experience, training, knowledge, skills, abilities, and most importantly, the desire to serve the people of Virginia,” said Secretary of Labor Bryan Slater. “We are also working hard to examine regulated occupations and professions to find ways to simplify and speed up credentialing processes and universal licensing recognition for individuals who want to live and work in Virginia.”
This change will take effect on July 1, 2023. Virginia is the latest in a growing number of state governments to elevate the value of work experience and its new prominence in the future of America’s workforce. On average, Virginia state agencies advertise over 20,000 job opportunities each year.
Heavy traffic and rain forecasted for Memorial Day weekend – pack patience, plan ahead
Travel and weather forecasts for the 2023 Memorial Day weekend have the Virginia State Police strongly encouraging all drivers to be prepared before heading out to any holiday destination. Pack your patience for potential delays and congested highways due to significant traffic volume and inclement weather conditions. In addition, state police remind drivers to ditch distractions, buckle up, and never drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Travelers are also encouraged to “know before you go” by checking the Virginia Department of Transportation’s (VDOT) 511 traffic cameras and real-time information on road conditions by dialing 511 on a phone, visiting www.511Virginia.org or downloading the 511 app.
“Virginians need to make traffic safety a priority every day and, especially as we head into the Memorial Day weekend and summer travel season,” said Colonel Gary T. Settle, Virginia State Police Superintendent. “Memorial Day weekend is filled with celebrations, vacations, outdoor festivals, and backyard cookouts, which is why we need all motorists to share the road responsibly by driving smart, safe, and sober.”
Beginning Friday, May 26, 2023, VSP joins law enforcement around the country for the Operation Crash Awareness Reduction Effort (C.A.R.E), a state-sponsored, national program intended to reduce crashes, fatalities, and injuries due to impaired driving, speed, and failing to wear a seat belt. The 2023 Memorial Day statistical counting period begins at 12:01 a.m. on May 26 and continues through midnight Monday, May 29, 2023. All available state police troopers and supervisors will be on patrol through the holiday weekend to help keep traffic moving safely and responsibly.
On Monday, May 22, 2023, state police participated in the kickoff for the annual “Click It or Ticket” campaign. This enhanced enforcement and education effort aims to further emphasize the lifesaving value of seat belts for every person in a vehicle.
During the 2022 Memorial Day Operation C.A.R.E. initiative, 16 individuals lost their lives in traffic crashes on Virginia roadways.* During last year’s combined Memorial Day C.A.R.E. initiative and the annual “Click It or Ticket” campaign, Virginia Troopers cited 4,888 speeders and 1,875 reckless drivers and arrested 90 impaired drivers. In addition, 659 individuals were cited for seat belt violations, 117 were cited for child safety restraint violations, and 144 felony arrests were made. Virginia State Police also assisted 1,735 disabled motorists.
With the increased patrols, VSP also reminds drivers of Virginia’s “Move Over” law, which requires motorists to move over when approaching an emergency vehicle stopped alongside the road. If unable to move over, then drivers are required to cautiously pass the emergency vehicle. The law also applies to workers in vehicles equipped with amber lights.
States see record low unemployment across the U.S.
Across much of the country, the jobs market is as strong as it’s ever been, and Black women, young people, and people with disabilities are among the workers benefiting, recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show.
Twenty states reported an unemployment rate under 3% in April, while 15 states saw record lows, led by South Dakota at 1.9%, followed by Nebraska at 2%, and New Hampshire and North Dakota at 2.1%. The national rate was 3.4%. Other states that saw their unemployment rates reach levels not seen since the BLS began recording them in 1976 include Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Maine, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, according to BLS data released on Friday.
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, Virginia’s unemployment rate dropped to 3.1% in April, a slight decrease from its March rate and below the national rate of 3.4%. A May 19 press release from Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office also noted the state recorded its highest labor force participation rate since June 2014 in April, at 66.2%.
“The Virginia labor market continues to show strength during the first part of 2023,” said Secretary of Commerce and Trade Caren Merrick. “Despite large gains in labor force participation, filling open positions remains a challenge for businesses in the commonwealth, and we remain laserfocused on getting more Virginians into the workforce.”
Recent data from the Virginia Employment Commission also found there was just under one unemployed worker for every two job openings in Virginia in March 2023 — a measurement known as the “job seekers ratio.” That ratio has held steady since July 2021.
Mark Vitner, the chief economist at Piedmont Crescent Capital in Charlotte, North Carolina, said major metropolitan areas and emerging metropolitan areas in the South have benefited from recent shifts in the labor market. In Florida, the labor market in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Orlando, Tampa, and Jacksonville has been growing rapidly, he said.
“Huntsville, Alabama, is one of the fastest growing markets, and it’s a big tech market in aerospace and in defense. We’ve seen a huge influx from California into Huntsville, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, has seen an influx of investment in the automotive industry,” he said. “The Port of Savannah has been the fastest-growing port in the country. It’s just fueled enormous growth in the industrial market in Savannah and, more broadly, in south Georgia. These markets have low unemployment rates and very strong job growth, and so that’s what you want to see that mix of.”
Vitner added that the rural areas of states with low unemployment may have a different story to tell.
“States that have a larger rural population tend to have lower labor force participation, and given the stronger overall job growth, it results in some very low unemployment rates without particularly strong nonfarm employment,” Vitner said.
To be sure, in some states, the number of people who have lost work has increased. Ten states had rates of 4% or higher than the nation. Nevada, which had the highest unemployment rate in the country in 2020, has seen job gains but still had the nation’s highest rate in April, at 5.4%. States like Washington and California, which have seen large layoffs among tech companies, also have seen their job markets slightly worsen.
But the recovery has also lifted up workers often sidelined in worse economic times. Bureau of Labor Statistics data on the demographics of workers and their unemployment rates for April showed that employment among Black women climbed to a 22-year high. Women’s labor force participation is also moving up. It increased by 0.6 of a percentage point in the past year.
That growth is affecting women of all ages and education levels, and Black women and Hispanic women have had some of the biggest labor force participation growth, at a 2.2% and 2.1% increase over the same period, according to an analysis from the University of Michigan’s Betsey Stevenson, a professor of economics, and Benny Docter, a senior policy analyst.
The unemployment rate for people with disabilities, while still high compared to the overall unemployment rate, is 6.3% compared to 8.3% a year ago. In March, the unemployment rate for people aged 16 to 24, who are already benefiting from pre-pandemic labor market conditions, marked a 70-year low at 7.5%, according to the Economic Policy Institute. In April, it dipped further for that age group to 6.5%.
“What happens when the economy is strong is that you can bring marginalized groups of workers off of the sidelines because employers are more open to different folks essentially,” said Katherine Gallagher Robbins, a senior fellow at the National Partnership for Women & Families. “Part of the consequence of this strong labor market is that you’re seeing low unemployment rates for Black workers, and in particular Black women and for disabled workers. The rates for disabled workers have been both in terms of unemployment, but also in terms of participation, really strong compared to what we have seen in years gone by.”
Gallagher Robbins added that Gen Z workers came into a very strong labor market, which bodes better for them than previous generations, but it also means they have more to lose if the economy falters soon.
“They’re hopefully in a position of setting themselves up for lifelong higher earnings, and yet they will be amongst the first to go. They tend to work in industries where there’s more churn,” she said, such as retail and hospitality.
Many industries are also showing fast job growth right now, Docter said, and growth has been largest in education and health care.
Private sector education and health services “had been the strongest job grower through the time between the last recession and 2020, and it got knocked pretty far off course in a way that was pretty atypical. Since then, we’ve seen really steady, really impressive growth most months (in those areas), and I expect that we still will for a while,” he said. “It’s nowhere near its pre-pandemic trajectory, so there’d be over 700,000 more jobs in that industry today than there are. And so there’s a lot of space there to grow if you look at the numbers this month. … There’s nothing really to say that those industries are going to falter any time soon.”
The labor market is still leaning toward greater power for workers as well, which has been positive for labor organizers, Gallagher Robbins said. Americans’ approval of labor unions has increased from 64% before the pandemic to 71% in 2022.
“[Worker bargaining] is on the rise and not accidentally. … Not everything has been successful, but those [organizing efforts] coming to the fore now, I think, are no coincidence,” she said. “That is also something that is interacting and intersecting with the economy of the moment, and if we shift back towards a place where workers have less bargaining power, I think that that’s going to have an impact on the ability to organize.”
Vitner said the retirement of Baby Boomers provides many workers with greater labor power than they previously enjoyed.
“Workers clearly have more negotiating power today. One of the things that’s in their favor is that we have a rising tide of Baby Boomers that are leaving the workforce. And that makes for a very tight labor market, and certain industries have even greater challenges because their workforce skews a bit older,” he said. “Younger workers have a bit more negotiating power, but they have a brighter outlook. They’re entering the workforce at a time where there’s going to be opportunities to advance relatively quickly.”
Inflation has made it more difficult for many workers to enjoy these gains, but that could be changing. Although inflation is still far above the Federal Reserve’s 2% target, it is moderating, and wages are now outpacing inflation, at a 6.1% increase in median weekly earnings for January, February, and March compared to a year before. During the same period, there was a 5.8% rise in consumer prices. In April, average hourly earnings rose by 4.4% over the past 12 months.
by Casey Quinlan, Virginia Mercury
Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.
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