September 29, 2020
When Maria* landed a job as a hostess at a Chicago restaurant, she was elated. It was a far cry from her work as an English teacher and radio show host in Venezuela, but she was grateful to find opportunity after fleeing the political and economic crisis in her home country. Jobs in Chicago were almost impossible to find, and the income meant she could send money to her 20-year-old son and her parents, who were all struggling back home in Venezuela.
Less than three weeks later, however, the coronavirus pandemic shut down Chicago’s bars and restaurants and she suddenly found herself unemployed.
“When I was talking to my family, I’d try to be optimistic and I’d try to be in a good mood, but inside I was so stressed and so worried about the future,” said the 41-year-old, who had little in the way of savings.
Maria isn’t alone. The financial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have hit Latinos in the U.S. especially hard. As the country locked down in the spring of 2020, unemployment in this group jumped from 4.8% in February to 18.5% in April. Latina women fared even worse, with their unemployment rate jumping from 5.5% to 20.5% during the same time. In comparison, the overall unemployment rate was 3.8% in February and 14.4% in April.
Krystal, 24, feels these effects daily but especially when battling for workspace with her elementary school–age daughter and high school–age sister in the single room they now share in Los Angeles. Krystal, who is also Latina, is a student at the University of California, Riverside, and was supporting herself with a job in the cafeteria. When the campus closed down in response to the pandemic, she lost her job and had to move back in with her parents.
Financial hardship isn’t new for Krystal. Feeding herself and her daughter on a minimum-wage job, she says, always felt like trying to solve a puzzle without all the pieces.
“Everything was always short. I was basically in survival mode: Pay your bills, pay your food,” she said. “How can I stretch this dollar? That’s constantly your thought. How can I make it to the 15th, when I get paid?”
Krystal would scour campus for events that served food and plan meals based off what was in the school’s food pantry. When the bus fare for kids increased from 25 cents to 50 cents, she wasn’t sure how she’d weather the increase.
Even before the pandemic, Latinos were one of the lowest-earning groups in the U.S. In 2016, their median annual income was $30,400, compared with $51,288 for Asians, the highest-earning racial and ethnic group. In 2017, 19% of Latinos lived in poverty, compared with 13% of Americans overall.
In April 2020, 70% of Latino adults in the U.S. said they didn’t have emergency funds to cover three months of expenses, compared with 47% of White adults. That same month, Latinos were also more likely to say they couldn’t cover their bills than White adults (44% compared with 26%).
“Now it’s so hard for me. Before the pandemic started, things were hard, but not like it’s hard now,” said Vicente, a 49-year-old in Chicago who is two months behind on his rent because his meager income evaporated after the pandemic started.
Vicente is blind, so his job prospects have always been limited. But before the pandemic he could string informal gigs together, like translation or helping people with their groceries.
Vicente is diabetic and worries constantly about how he’d survive on the street without a refrigerator for his medication. He’s been homeless before and he’s desperate to avoid it again.
Like many Latinos, Vicente still thinks the worst of the pandemic is yet to come. According to a June survey of U.S. adults from the Pew Research Center, 70% of Latinos said this, compared with 40% of Americans overall.
Maria fears the same. After an excruciating month and a half, she managed to get another job, this time as a health screener at a meat processing plant. She’s relieved to be able to pay rent and send money home again, but her new job comes with some downsides: Her shift starts at 3:30 a.m., and she worries about the health risk.
Krystal says threats to cut student financial aid — on which her dreams of a college degree depend — are making her panic. She’s spurred on, however, by her goal of a career in public health or genetic counseling — dreams she’s proud to pursue after years of people telling her that getting pregnant at 15 meant she had no prospects.
“I'm just really excited to open my horizons,” she said. “And I want to be able to do that for other girls in my situation.”
*We have used only first names in this article to protect the privacy of the people interviewed.