In 2020 it became even more obvious how quintessential frontline workers were to the backbone of the U.S. economy. Those in hourly and salaried roles allowed stores to remain open, meals to be prepared, and packages to be delivered among a host of other possibilities as the world essentially shut down. These roles are filled by 95 million workers who, according to McKinsey, earn an average annual income of $33,000. 

In a new study from the global management consulting firm, McKinsey finds that while these roles are essential, they’re often unfulfilling from a financial vantage point.  And more often, than not, they’re filled by Black and Hispanic Americans. "Race in the Workplace: The Frontline Experience" finds that roughly 70 percent of the working population is "frontline," and Black and Hispanic Americans make up 70 percent of frontline workers. Of the frontline workers who are in positions as retail salespeople, cooks, store managers, etc., more than half make less than $30,000 a year. And over a lifetime, only 30 percent of workers move to a higher income quintile.

“The front line is a vital part of nearly all sectors of the economy. They are the public face of many organizations, working in industries from healthcare to transportation and logistics to foodservice. They make tremendous contributions to the US economy, including carrying the nation through the pandemic. Yet despite these contributions, frontline workers experience the greatest hardship from economic disruption,” the report points out.

Despite Black and Latino workers making up the bulk of the industry, pay inequity still exists. On average they make 20 percent less than their white counterparts and are most likely to stay in the lowest wage jobs, with the least employment security and the least advancement prospects. What’s worse, the DEI work going on in corporate America has seemingly not found its way to frontline workers. Frontline hourly employees report the lowest overall feelings of inclusion of all employees in the workforce, and the differences in inclusion emerge as they climb the corporate ladder.

“While all groups feel more connected at higher levels of their organization, Black employees experience lower inclusion than their peers at most levels,” the report states. “This pattern essentially sets up a no-win situation for Black frontline workers: shared stressors in the front line or feelings of isolation as they move up the ladder.”

These factors make it particularly difficult for Black frontline workers to reach middle-class status, defined by Pew Research as an annual household income for a family of three of anywhere from $52,200 to $156,600. For those who are able to climb, the isolation felt in these roles can often lead to toxic work environments.

McKinsey has identified how companies can unlock mobility opportunities for frontline workers, creating pathways to the middle class, and has laid out the roadmap needed to make a change. The key, McKinsey notes, is exploring strategies and identifying targeted actions to give employees equitable access to developmental and advancement opportunities. This includes formalizing paths for advancement from the front line to corporate roles, overhauling the talent management system, rewarding experience rather than relying on credentials and identifying gateway jobs in the organization and promotion at parity.

The study revealed that just 39 percent of hourly respondents believe their employer promotes fairly, and much of that has to do with the lack of opportunities for Black workers. McKinsey suggests rolling out initiatives that will help frontline workers of color who want to advance but lack access. It includes establishing a "graduate forward" program, giving voice to frontline employees, raising the floor on the frontline experience and investing in frontline managers.