Latinos, hit hard by job losses, are making strong comeback

After scraping by on handyman jobs for a year, Bert Qintana figured he’d have to leave his wife and teenage son at their home near Taos, N.M., and find work elsewhere.

Then Qintana got a call last month from Chevron Mining, which runs a mine 20 miles away. Would he be interested in hauling muck from the molybdenum mine for $17.05 an hour? He leaped at the offer.

“Thank God,” said Qintana, 45, a Latino who had worked as a general contractor. “I was able to hang in there and not have to move.” About a dozen other workers, most of them Latino, also were hired.

Like Qintana, many Latinos with ties to the home building industry got slammed by the recession, which wiped out about 2 million construction jobs.

But now, as the economic rebound picks up a bit of steam, Latinos are scoring bigger job gains than most other demographic groups and proving to be a bright spot in the fledgling recovery.

While they make up only 15% of the country’s workforce, Latinos have racked up half the employment gains posted since the economy began adding jobs in early 2010, Labor Department data showed.

The improving labor market for Latinos, a key voting bloc, could boost President Obama’s political fortunes in the fall. They backed Obama heavily in 2008, but many became disgruntled over recession-induced job losses, a top concern among Latinos, and his handling of immigration issues.

Among registered Latino voters, 54% approved of the president’s handling of his job as of late last year, down from 63% a year earlier, according to Pew Hispanic Center surveys. Among Latinos ages 18 to 29, the president’s approval rating took an even steeper fall.

A rosier jobs picture could turn that around.

So far, Latinos are the only demographic group whose employment numbers have returned to pre-recession levels. The latest Latino jobless rate of 10.5% remains higher than the overall rate of 8.3% for the nation and 7.4% for whites, partly reflecting their large immigrant population (foreign-born U.S. workers tend to have higher unemployment because of a variety of factors) as well as education and skill levels.

The construction industry remains weak, but other sectors in which Latinos have a relatively large share of jobs — hotels, food services, healthcare and manufacturing, for example — are seeing more robust job growth.

Mining support services, where Latinos make up about a fifth of the workers, are expanding employment significantly. And, because Latinos account for a relatively small share of workers in the public sector, they aren’t bearing the brunt of deep cuts in government jobs.

There are other reasons, experts say, why Latinos are faring better than some other groups. For one thing, they might be more willing to take low-wage, temporary jobs. And they tend to be more mobile, willing to move from one county to another to get a job.

Some of the decline in Latino unemployment reflects the fact that many discouraged workers have stopped looking for jobs. Also, with jobs generally hard to find, fewer people are moving to the U.S. from Latin America, and more are returning home. The result is a smaller pool of workers who can more easily get employment.

As with other temporary workers, some Latinos may find that short-term jobs are a path to full-time work. But for many others, low-wage, temporary jobs don’t offer much opportunity for advancement or for the kind of income needed to support a family.

When the housing industry was booming, workers such as Qintana had a better shot at building a middle-class life.

Qintana’s contracting firm couldn’t even keep up with the demand for construction and repairs, enabling him to make enough money to build his own house in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

At the start of the recession in late 2007, the Hispanic unemployment rate was 6.3% nationwide and 6.4% in California, where more than 14 million of the nation’s 50.5 million Latinos live.

As the economy worsened, the jobless rate for Hispanics hit a peak in November 2010 at 13.1% nationally and 14.7% in California. Since then, those rates have fallen to 10.5% and 13.8%, respectively.

The declines, said Adriana Kugler, the Labor Department’s chief economist, were “very striking” and cut across workers’ ages. That suggested that the trend wasn’t occurring simply because Latinos have a large percentage of younger workers.

Obama administration officials see significant implications if the trend continues.

Latinos, the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, not only are fueling population growth in California, Texas and Florida, but also in Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio and other states. As their share increases, Latino voters could play a pivotal role in the fall elections.

“My concern is they are going to stay home” and not vote, said Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa de Maryland, a Latino and minority advocacy group.

“They’re very disappointed with the president because of jobs and immigration reform,” Torres added, referring to Obama’s unfulfilled pledge to overhaul the nation’s immigration policy. Many Latinos also have sharply criticized the administration’s handling of deportations of undocumented immigrants.

But among registered Latino voters, the top issue is jobs, and the outlook is brightening. Monthly updates from Casa de Maryland’s five field offices, where people get training and help finding jobs, show a 20% to 30% increase in hiring in the last year.

Although most are temporary jobs, Torres said, “they are feeling things are moving in the right direction.”

Latinos have a bigger climb than others. According to Pew, household wealth of Latinos, on average, fell more sharply than for whites or blacks from 2005 to 2009, and the ethnic group’s poverty rate from 2006 to 2010 increased more than for any other group.

Fred Moreno of Bell, who has an associate’s degree in science and information technology, knows what it’s like to fall below the poverty line.

Laid off from a copier company in 2008, the 44-year-old Navy veteran exhausted his $200-a-week jobless benefits by the end of 2010. He then drained his life savings, had his truck repossessed and ended up homeless, sleeping sometimes at a shelter by the airport.

“I don’t smoke, I don’t drink or do drugs,” he said. “I’m bilingual. I have two good legs, two good arms. But it’s not happening.”

Then, a few months ago, after getting help with his resume from Adrian Lazaro of the California Employment Development Department, Moreno landed a job as a technician with Xerox Corp. in El Segundo.

He has since moved back into an apartment, married and bought a 1995 Ford van. “I’m slowly and surely saving up again,” he said.