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Why A Historic Wave Of Latino Prosperity Is Under Threat Now

Millions of jobs have evaporated, particularly from businesses that employ a large number of Hispanics — like hotels, restaurants, bars, building services.
Millions of jobs have evaporated, particularly from businesses that employ a large number of Hispanics — like hotels, restaurants, bars, building services.

It was just a few months ago when things were looking up for Latinos. Wages were rising and unemployment had hit a record low.

As the U.S. economy marked its longest expansion on record, Latino families marked better times with milestone purchases. They bought more homes than any ethnic group, including whites. Another positive: a record number of Hispanics started attending college with enrollment nearly tripling in the last two decades.

Now, that historic wave of Latino prosperity appears to be at risk from the coronavirus pandemic. The devastation in job losses is widespread in America, as the unemployment rate has climbed to 14.7%, the highest level since the Great Depression. But the latest U.S. jobs report shows that Latinos are the worst hit, with a record jobless rate of 18.9%, higher than any other ethnic group.

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Research shows that minority communities are especially vulnerable in economic downturns. During the Great Recession just over a decade ago, Latino fortunes were harmed far more than whites, and the damage endured. It took longer for them to regain lost jobs and wages. And it's especially hard for immigrants.

"Migrants are not only the first ones to lose their job but will be the last ones to regain it," Manuel Orozco, a director at the Inter-American Dialogue and also a senior fellow at Harvard University's Center for International Development of the Inter-American Dialogue.

This time, the pain could be far worse.

In the span of just two months, millions of jobs have evaporated, particularly from businesses that employ a large number of Hispanics — hotels, restaurants, bars, building services.

No one is traveling or going out to eat during the lockdowns and that has sliced 5.5 million jobs from restaurants and bars and another 839,000 from hotels in April alone.

And with offices shut down, it's led to another 259,000 job losses from building services — an industry with over 40% Hispanic employees. Workers like Anabel, from El Salvador, who has lived in Los Angeles for 12 years.

Until recently, Anabel worked two jobs — four days as a cleaner at a Beverly Hills designer store and one day a week at an office building — making $14 an hour. But the store closed a few weeks ago and she still has the the building job, but that's just four hours of work, and she makes barely enough to make ends meet.

Anabel says she didn't pay her May rent — it was the first time she was delinquent.

"All of us here in the apartment building have gone to the manager and said we can't pay," Anabel told NPR. "How can we pay without jobs?"

She says the apartment building manager has warned renters not to fall too far behind, otherwise they'll be evicted once the statewide moratorium on evictions is lifted.

Anabel says she picks up food from the local church and a food pantry. She's sewing masks to try and make some money. Anabel asked NPR to use only her first name, since she is undocumented.

Activists and economists who track the Latino community worry that Anabel's plight is widespread. Many domestic workers who are undocumented have also lost income in large numbers. This largely hidden workforce is more than 2.5 million strong, according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Many of them are out of work because of social distancing. They include workers like house cleaners, cooking, laundry and caring for dependents.

More than half of them identify as Hispanic or Latina, more than 90% are women, and most of them are primary breadwinners for their families, according to a survey titled the Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work. Among the country's lowest paid jobs, these workers have very little savings, they don't qualify for federal or state relief programs, and have few places to go for help.

The Hispanic population has more than doubled in the past two decades. They have made enormous strides during the economic recovery of the last decade, but they are still very vulnerable. Hispanics still earn about 25% less than white workers do. And even though their poverty rate fell to an all-time low recently, it was still more than double the rate of non-Hispanic whites.

The hope was that the recent wins would continue, and lift the community from out of America's underclass. The coronavirus has arrested that march forward with no end in sight, for now.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.