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In a dark moment for L.A.’s workforce, embracing the chance to build back better
By LA Councilmember Joe Buscaino and Michael Lawson, President & CEO of LA Urban League
Published December 24, 2020

Michael Lawson is the President and CEO of the Los Angeles Urban League. (Courtesy Photo)

Right now, more than 600,000 people in our city are unemployed in the fallout from this pandemic. They are disproportionately women and people of color. As we help them get back to work, we have an opportunity to set our city down a more equitable path.

By now, it’s well established that Black and Brown people in Los Angeles are disproportionately getting sick and dying of COVID-19. Those who still have their health may not have their jobs. Over the summer, as the effects of this economic crisis were brought to bear, the unemployment rate in L.A. County hit 20.3%. When you looked under the hood to see how minority neighborhoods were faring, that number was double, sometimes triple, compared to mostly White neighborhoods. It’s still too early to say exactly what’s happening as we go through this new wave of the virus, but what’s clear is hundreds of thousands of our neighbors are fighting to find their way back into the workforce. We must consider every option for giving them a fair shot.

Unfortunately, ‘fair’ would hardly characterize the hiring process, even under typical circumstances. Consider the odds of anyone getting a competitive corporate role who doesn’t come from the ‘right’ schools or elite internships. Estimates are that simply submitting your resume online, without any network connections or referrals, gives you a two percent chance of advancing to the next round.

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Some employers might rely on manually reading through resumes as a first step, but in today’s world, more and more organizations are relying on hiring tools to help with the screening process. These tools take many forms, ranging from skills and personality tests to automated interviews. They also have very different effects on fairness and diversity. One common screening tool employers have been using for decades is the cognitive ability (or IQ) test, despite the fact that the data tells us such assessments can result in White candidates being selected at more than 300% the rate of Black candidates. As another example, facial analysis software has recently been the center of significant controversy, because studies show that it is less effective at evaluating people of color.

Given that hiring tools have direct implications for deciding who is awarded job opportunities, it is unacceptable that we don’t have clearer information about whether they are helping or hindering progress toward an equitable recovery. This year, we’ve both had several conversations with corporate leaders that genuinely want to create more diverse and inclusive workforces. Many of them are also using employment selection tools that are disproportionately screening out women and people of color. No matter how well-intentioned an organization may be, if we don’t interrogate our status quo hiring systems, we’ll just end up re-building a status quo economy.

Joe Buscaino represents the 15th District on the Los Angeles City Council, and serves as the President of the National League of Cities. (Courtesy Photo)

We want to join in the process of bringing transparency to the hiring technology industry. This week, the Los Angeles City Council advanced the Fair Hiring Software legislation, a policy proposal that has the enthusiastic backing of the Los Angeles Urban League and several other civil rights and community groups. If approved, it would require vendors of hiring assessments to test their products for fairness – meaning equity of selection rates across race and gender groups – and to share those results with employers that are considering using them.

Such action would, for the first time, pull the curtain back on the processes employers use to determine a person’s potential. Corporate leaders would have the information they need to truly create screening processes that prioritize inclusion.

Others are taking a closer look at this issue too. New York City Council is considering similar legislation, and Senate Democrats recently asked Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to give a full accounting of whether it has investigated discrimination resulting from hiring technologies.

If enacted alongside several other economic relief measures before L.A. City Council, this policy would play a critical role in building our economy back better – in a way that expands access to opportunity for everyone.

Joe Buscaino represents the 15th District on the Los Angeles City Council, and serves as the President of the National League of Cities.

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Michael Lawson is the President and CEO of the Los Angeles Urban League.

Categories: COVID-19 | Employment | Local | News
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