In Construction Slump, Latinos Lose the Most

By Alejandro Lazo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 5, 2008

The unemployment rate among Latinos is rising faster than the rate for non-Hispanic workers in the United States, as the steep decline in the construction industry eliminates hundreds of thousands of jobs, according to a national study released yesterday.

Latino workers have lost nearly 250,000 jobs in the construction industry over the past year, with the foreign-born hit hardest, the report by the Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center said.

The unemployment rate for Latino workers was 7.3 percent for the first quarter of 2008, compared with 6.1 percent for the same period last year. The rate for all other workers was 5 percent, up from 4.6 percent.

For the first time since 2003, the unemployment rate for Latinos not born in the United States was higher, at 7.5 percent, than the rate for native-born Latinos, at 6.9 percent, the report found.

Despite the rise in unemployment, Hispanic immigrants did not appear to be returning to their native countries in significant numbers. Those who have lost their jobs tend instead to seek other work in the United States, the report said.

"For now, at least, we do not find any signs that they are discouraged enough to go back home," said Rakesh Kochhar, associate director of research at the Pew Hispanic Center and author of the report. "They are remaining active."

With the overall economic downturn, the unemployment rate has risen for all groups. Blacks continued to have the highest rate, at 9 percent by the end of the first quarter compared with 8.3 percent in the first quarter of 2007, according to the report. Over the same period, the unemployment rate for whites rose to 4.4 percent from 4.1 percent, and for Asians to 3.3 percent from 3.1 percent.

The Pew report based its analysis on unemployment rates that were not adjusted for seasonal variations because seasonally adjusted data are not available for immigrant Hispanics.

Latinos had been big beneficiaries of the construction boom.

But over the past year, a dramatic reversal has been underway, according to the report, which is based on an analysis of data from both the U.S. Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than half of the 456,000 jobs lost by Latinos were in construction, it found.

Mexican immigrants and all recently arrived Latino immigrants have suffered the most over the past year, according to the report, with about 152,000 Mexican immigrants and 69,000 Latino immigrants who arrived after 2000 having lost their construction jobs. The report uses the terms Latino and Hispanic interchangeably.

The report also found that the unemployment rate for Hispanic women increased to 7 percent in the first quarter of 2008, up from 5.6 in the same period a year earlier. That increase was slightly greater than that for Hispanic men, which increased to 7.4 percent from 6.3 percent.

Median weekly wages were essentially unchanged for all Hispanics, at $480 in the first quarter of 2008 and $479 in the first quarter of 2007. But wages for Hispanic workers in the construction industry fell sharply, by 6.9 percent, to $485 in the first quarter this year from $521 a year earlier.

Javier Amurrio, 38, an immigrant from Argentina, was one of the workers who lost a job last year. Amurrio came to the United States in the summer of 2000 from Buenos Aires and found work installing drywall in the Washington area's burgeoning suburbs. He later became a stonemason, earning $32 an hour with benefits and working on such projects as the District's Newseum.

As work dried up in 2007, Amurrio spent more than seven months of that year unemployed. He could not pay the mortgages on the three houses he had bought during the years of the boom and lost them all to foreclosure.

Amurrio now lives in a rented townhouse in Burke and manages by working odd jobs as a handyman, fixing fences and painting houses. But those jobs are few and far between, and often they pay less than half of what he once made. Amurrio is planning to apply for restaurant jobs but said he hopes eventually to find full-time construction work again.

"Construction paid me $32 an hour, and with this I could pay my house, bills and invest in my children," Amurrio said. "Do you think, working at McDonald's, I could do the same?"

While Latino immigrants in the United States appear to be staying put, fewer may be coming to this country to find work, according to the Pew study. The study found that the growth in the Latino immigrant labor population slowed in 2006 and 2007 compared with prior years.

The report cited stepped-up immigration enforcement in the United States, the economic slowdown and a combination of those two factors as possible explanations for the slower growth rate. The report did not distinguish between undocumented Hispanic immigrants and those in the United States legally. The report did estimate, however, that illegal immigrants make up about 5 percent of the U.S. workforce and tend to be overrepresented in certain industries, such as construction, where they account for about 12 percent of workers.

In another sign that the economic downturn is hitting Latinos hardest, a study commissioned by the Inter-American Development Bank and released in April found that Hispanic immigrants have struggled to send money to their home countries. The survey of 5,000 Hispanics found that only 50 percent of respondents were still regularly sending money home to their families. That was a decline from 73 percent two years ago, when a similar survey was conducted.

Jose Silva, 27, a Mexican immigrant who lives in Langley Park, said he would regularly send his mother in Acapulco, Mexico, payments of at least $150 every two weeks before he lost his job painting and refurbishing apartments in Silver Spring. Now, after spending much of the past year without a steady income, he said he plans to send his wife and their two children, who were born in the United States, back home to live with his mother.

Silva is one of several Latino workers who have lost their full-time jobs and have swelled the day labor centers run by the nonprofit group Casa de Maryland, looking for temporary jobs. In an interview at the group's Langley Park center, Silva said that in a decade of living and working illegally in many cities across the United States, he had never seen the economic situation so bad for immigrant laborers.

"The situation is very serious," Silva said. "I have friends in many different places, and they tell me that things are bad all over, not just here, but in the entire country. We have lost lots of work."

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