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'I don't have one cent left': Hispanic Americans hit hardest by layoffs

Lauren Aratani
Photograph: Cristóbal Herrera/EPA

When the US Bureau of Labor Statistics released its monthly jobs report earlier this month, the unemployment numbers were jaw-dropping: the unemployment rate rose from 4.4% in March to 14.7% in April – a decade’s worth of job gains wiped out in mere weeks.

The jobs report also unveiled the grim reality of which communities have been hit hardest from the economic impacts of Covid-19. Hispanic Americans saw the highest unemployment rate of any racial group at 18.9%, over 4% more than the national unemployment rate of 14.7%.

Related: Jobless America: the coronavirus unemployment crisis in figures

Clara Lopez of Miami, Florida, worked for 17 years as a room attendant at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel and was laid off at the end of March as things were starting to shut down. She has been trying to apply for unemployment insurance since 29 March, but has yet to have success. Florida, which has a 12.9% unemployment rate, continues to have a backlog of unemployment applications, meaning people like Lopez have been left with no unemployment insurance to pay essential bills.

“I have my light bill, my water bill, my car bill, my electric bill. As of now, I don’t even have one cent left to be able to pay for any of it,” Lopez said. Even though Lopez is able to buy groceries with food stamps, prices in supermarkets have gone up, meaning she is barely able to buy the groceries she needs.

The mass job losses hitting the community are a devastating blow in light of the gains that Hispanic Americans had made before the pandemic hit. In September, the Hispanic unemployment rate hit a historic low at 3.9% and hovered about 4% through February. Median household income had risen to $51,450 in 2018, another record high. Hispanic Americans were buying homes at a rate higher than any other race and had the highest labor force participation rate of any race.

Just this past March, Donald Trump took credit for the supposed economic boom that Hispanic Americans were seeing. “Under the booming Trump economy, Latinos are achieving record gains,” the president said while giving remarks at the Latino Coalition Legislative Summit on 4 March.

Yet even when measurements of wealth showed Hispanic Americans were doing better than ever before, they were still far behind white Americans. The median household income for white households in 2018 was $70,642, while the median household income for Hispanic households was $63,179.

Less income means that Hispanic American families struggle to build wealth. The average net worth of a Hispanic American household is $191,200, compared with the average net worth of a white household, which is $933,700. Hispanic American families are also more likely to be in poverty than white families, with 17% of Hispanic families in poverty in 2018 compared to 10% of white families.

“Even though the economy, you could say, was good, when you look at the numbers, once you pull back what was really happening, you saw that Latinos were working harder but were still barely struggling to get by,” said Orson Aguilar, director of economic policy for UnidosUS, an advocacy group for Hispanic Americans.

The disproportionate economic effect Hispanic Americans are seeing is reminiscent of the effect the Great Recession had on the group.

The wealth of many Hispanic families was concentrated in the value of the homes they owned, and many owned homes in states that were hit the hardest by the housing crisis, the Pew Research Center found in 2011. Thus, Hispanic families saw the largest decrease in household wealth of any racial group, dropping by 66%. In comparison, black families saw a 53% decrease in wealth while white families saw a 16% decrease.

While Covid-19 is causing a very different crisis that is hitting all groups, economists and policymakers have long said that job segregation has left Hispanic Americans overrepresented in the low-paying industries that have been hit hardest by Covid-19. Though they make up just over 17% of the American workforce, Hispanic Americans make up 49% of maids and housekeeping cleaners, 46% of construction workers and 38% of grounds and maintenance workers. Many of those industries were the ones that saw the most layoffs due to shutdowns.

“Latinos support a lot of industries that were hardest hit, and now we’re seeing as a result Latinos being the hardest hit,” Aguilar said.

Yaquelin, who asked that her last name be withheld for fear of repercussions from future employers, from Tamarac, Florida, was laid off once lockdowns in the state began by the three families that employed her as a nanny and cleaner. She is unsure of whether she will be able to work for the families again once the pandemic subsides or how that work will affect her health.

“Our work is the type of work that is done privately inside homes,” Yaquelin said in Spanish through a translator. “Domestic workers don’t have health insurance, we have no contract to outline our hours.”

The National Domestic Workers Alliance estimates there are nearly 2.5 million domestic workers in the US. In a survey, the not-for-profit found 72% of their respondents reported having no jobs in early April.

While Congress’s giant coronavirus stimulus package included $600 more in unemployment insurance for those who have been laid off, the checks can only go to people who have been able to successfully file in their state. Many states have antiquated online systems that are unable to handle the mass of people who have been laid off due to the pandemic, meaning millions could be left without unemployment insurance.

For Yaquelin, not having a job has also meant considerable stress over bills, especially as she has also not been able to successfully file for unemployment.

“I have no appetite, I have insomnia, I wake up many times during the night,” Yaquelin said. “I feel like this is going to change my life completely, and I don’t know how I’m going to manage all my finances.”