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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Hispanic Unemployment Rising In Fla. Even As Overall Rate Falls

By Sandra Hernandez

August 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

Florida's Hispanics usually escape high unemployment rates even when hermanos in other parts of the country do not. But continuing high unemployment throughout the nation is taking a toll even in Florida. New figures indicate Florida's Hispanics are increasingly struggling to find work -- any work.

"Florida has weathered the economic downturn better than most of the country, yet you see the unemployment rate among Hispanics growing faster than the Hispanic national average," said Jared Bernstein, an economist at the Economic Policy Center, a Washington-based labor think tank.

Unemployment in Florida dropped from 5.5 percent in the first half of 2002 to 5.3 percent in the first half of 2003, according to the Agency for Workforce Innovation, a state agency that tracks unemployment but not by race or ethnicity.

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate for the state's Hispanics grew from 6.3 percent in the first half of 2002 to 7.2 percent in the first half of 2003, according to the Economic Policy Center, which used federal quarterly unemployment reports to calculate the unemployment rate for Florida's Hispanics

The problem is becoming so acute that two national groups that study issues of importance to Hispanics, including the National Council of La Raza, (NCLR) are looking into the problem. The reports are to be released later this year.

Talk of political fallout already has begun. "The Bush administration doesn't seem to care if Latinos are in the picture of American prosperity," said Raul Yzaguirre, president of NCLR, at the group's national convention in Texas last month.

Democrats say they hope the soaring jobless rate will help them draw in Hispanic voters. "This is an issue that will resonate with Hispanics," said Tony Welch, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, adding that in battleground states such as Florida, the downturn could persuade Hispanics to reconsider their vote.

GOP defensive on jobs

Republicans insist the downturn will not last, but acknowledge "the economy has been sluggish and Hispanics have been hurt but the president will work on it," said Chad Colby, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

The new statistics are a startling contrast to the state's overall tale of recovery. Florida has done better in the economic downturn than many states, especially those suffering heavy losses in manufacturing.

Why Hispanics face a tougher time is unclear to many economists, who say Florida's Hispanic community is under the radar when it comes to tracking their employment levels. State officials have never provided ethnic unemployment figures for groups such as Hispanics.

The jobless rate may be higher simply because of a large number of Hispanics for too few jobs. In Miami-Dade County, Hispanics account for more than half the residents. Their numbers also are growing in Broward and Palm Beach counties. Also, Hispanics tend to work in tourism, retail and service jobs, all of which took a hit after Sept. 11, 2001.

"We saw two key areas affected and those were tourism that took a big drop and retail and finance," said John Cordrey, of the Beacon Council, Miami-Dade County's economic development group. "In addition, we had large numbers of people move into the area faster than the economy has been able to create jobs."

Miami-Dade lost more than 6,000 jobs last year in areas related to transportation, the airline industry and retail trade, according to the Beacon Council. The county's jobless rate hit 7.7 percent in June.

Florida's close economic ties to Latin America also are a factor, analysts say.

"Florida has become much more integrated with the economies of Latin America. It always provided services to the region and in turn it also became a growing share of Florida's economy," said Raul Hinojosa, an economist at UCLA. "Now the impact is hitting back into the U.S. You see this big economic downturn in Latin America, in places such as Venezuela and Argentina, taking a toll on the economy in Florida."

Jobs hard to find

For South Florida residents such as Scarlett Lima, the rising rates simply confirm the tough times.

"I can't tell you the number of applications I have filled out," said Lima, 32, a former accountant. "I'm willing to do anything, work as a waitress, clean floors but I can't find anything."

Lima has been unemployed for most of two years. In 2001 she and her family obtained visas to leave Cuba and migrate to Broward County.

The family scrapes by on her husband's $8-an-hour, night-shift job at a cement factory. His paycheck barely covers their $700-a-month rent. Lima briefly worked at a Pompano Beach laundry but had to quit after immigration officials delayed renewing her work permit. She tried to return when the permit was reissued but her former employer was laying off workers.

In Broward, where the overall unemployment rate in June was 5.9 percent, the outlook for unemployed Hispanics remained dim.

"I would say that about 80 percent of the people who knock on the door of Hispanic Unity need a job," said Isilio Arriaga, president of Hispanic Unity, the county's largest Hispanic social service agency.

He says many clients have limited English and need affordable child care, making their job search even harder.

Palm Beach rates

In Palm Beach County, which led the state in job creation in June, Hispanics unemployment rates are more difficult to track, according to Ken Montgomery, who heads the Workforce Alliance, a group of five, job-training centers.

"I would say things are actually OK here and we haven't seen a real increase despite an increase in the number of people coming into the area," he said, adding the agency does not provide ethnic breakdowns of its clients. The county's overall unemployment rate was 6.2 percent in June.

Still, some economists caution that the new numbers paint a picture bleaker than reality.

"The unemployment figures aren't a good indicator of quality of life," said Tony Villamil, a Coral Gables economist and former undersecretary of commerce.

Many new immigrants are self-employed, he said, "But that isn't counted in the unemployment data because they aren't looking for work. He noted Florida is home to 40 percent of the top 500 Hispanic-owned businesses.

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