Central Valley

Economic downturn hits Latinos hard, especially in construction

Latinos are among the hardest hit by the recent economic downturn, particularly those who have worked in construction, according to an analysis released Wednesday.

The unemployment rate for Latinos nationally hit 6.5 percent during the first three months of the year, a Pew Hispanic Center report shows, compared with a 4.7 percent rate for non-Latinos in the country.

In Merced County, the jobless rate in April was 12.3 percent, down from 13.6 percent in March, according to state statistics. There is no breakdown by ethnicity.

"The (Latino) unemployment rate shot up because of the slump in construction. Hispanic workers had done very well finding jobs in the construction industry as it was booming," said Rakesh Kochhar, the Pew report's primary researcher.

The Pew Hispanic Center is a nonpartisan research organization devoted to understanding Latino issues in the United States.

The report does not examine specific regions, but Latinos in areas hardest hit by the housing market bust likely would be most affected, he said. The Northern San Joaquin Valley is among those regions, as it has the highest foreclosure rate in the country and fewer homes under construction now than in the past two decades.

This time last year, Ernesto Dias, 31, of Modesto was framing houses in Merced. By autumn, he and his co-workers realized that work was slowing and it wasn't just a seasonal shift.

"The supervisors weren't talking about the next job because there wasn't a next job," Dias said.

He hasn't swung a hammer in eight months. After being out of work for two months, he started looking for nonconstruction work. A friend helped him get a part-time job washing dishes at night. His family was barely making it on his minimum-wage salary, so he took a second part-time job with a landscaping company.

"I still don't make as much as I did in construction," Dias said. "My friends are going through the same thing. There's work out there, but it pays less, so you have to work more."

Looking for work in ag

Farm labor contractor Jose Flores of Salida can attest to that. He supplies workers to many Central Valley farmers.

"Most of them started working in the agricultural fields. They stayed (in the United States) and went for better-paying jobs. Now, they're coming back to their roots," he said.

A few years ago, farmers watched their pears and apricots shrivel and drop from the trees because growers couldn't find enough workers to harvest their crops.

"This year, we have plenty of labor. I wish I could hire more so they could have a job," Flores said.

More immigrants unemployed

For the first time in five years, foreign-born Latinos have a higher unemployment rate than U.S.-born Latinos. Latino immigrants have a 7.5 percent unemployment rate, while U.S.-born Latinos are at 6.9 percent. The study does not differentiate between documented and undocumented immigrants, but finds that fewer immigrants are joining the job market.

Kochhar said he thinks it's because of the economic slump and increased border enforcement in the United States and along Mexico's southern border.

Though it has become harder for immigrants to find work in the United States, they aren't returning to their native counties, Kochhar said. They are staying and searching for other jobs.

"I've noticed there are more applications (from all people) coming in," said Gary Huff, chief executive officer of Huff Construction Co. in Modesto.

Huff Construction builds commercial structures, an area that hasn't been hit as hard as residential, Huff said. Still, the builder said he has felt the crunch and has laid off some workers.

"Seniority and performance are considered, and also the position. For our company, there is less work in wood-frame structures. Now we are doing steel and masonry buildings. Employment depends on the type of work out there."

Labor Ready is a temporary job agency known for providing construction workers. Mark Terry, a Modesto branch manager, said he mostly has seen carpenters looking for work.

"I'm seeing pretty highly qualified people looking for jobs. They're hungry and looking for anything to keep busy," he said.

Requests for construction workers at Labor Ready have dropped about 75 percent since last year, Terry estimates. Many former construction workers are turning to manufacturing, trucking and welding jobs.

"They're trying to get out of seasonal work," said Bruce Merchant of Alliance Worknet, a Stanislaus County agency that helps people find jobs and does job training.

Turning to county agency

Of the average 1,800 people a month seeking jobs and training at Alliance Worknet, about 260 are former construction workers, said Adolph Lopez, Alliance Worknet manager. Roughly two-thirds of those former construction workers are Latino, he said.

Irene Villapudua-Ponce and her husband, Edgar Ponce, of Ceres lost their jobs about a month apart this winter. After being out of work for about five months, Edgar Ponce has started commuting to the Bay Area to lay roofs on commercial buildings. But Villapudua-Ponce, a former paralegal, still is out of work.

"It's affected us tremendously. It was so severe I got emotional stress and my doctor put me on disability," Villapudua-Ponce said. "There's not a day I don't send a résumé."

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