As Economy Picks Up, Latinos May Be Gaining Jobs Faster Than Others

LAS VEGAS — For the last year, gardener Juan Romulo was unemployed and stood outside of Las Vegas nurseries, waiting for any kind of day labor work that would come his way. Then, when a landscaping firm hired him in February, he joined the ranks of a growing number of Americans going back to work.

His new job is hard work, and the pay is barely above minimum wage, but for Romulo, it is a relief to have a steady paycheck again to feed his family.

"Perhaps it’s not what they should pay, but we will work for anything,” Romulo said in Spanish. He immigrated to Las Vegas from Mexico when the city was booming, but like many others in his position, has suffered in the downturn. “The point is to work."

Jobs are coming back, or at least it seems that way. New claims for unemployment benefits are near a four-year low. And there’s some evidence that a group that’s been hit harder than others in this recession -- Latinos -- may be getting back into the workforce more quickly.

That trend could be due to a willingness among some Latino workers to do what Romulo did, and take on not-so-desirable jobs. In 2011, 45 percent of employment growth across the country was due to Latinos gaining jobs, even though they only account for about 15 percent of the work force, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Across town, in the heart of the Latino community in North Las Vegas, people here say the recession is far from over. They are still seeing businesses close. And the good jobs, like the 70,000 construction jobs lost here in the past few years are not coming back.

But there are signs of people surviving the sour economy.

At dusk on a recent evening, a line formed outside of the taco truck, Tacos La Doña, which is parked in front of a tire shop. A young guy ordered four tacos for just a dollar each.

A local family opened La Doña’s about a year ago, and it is one of several new food trucks in this part of town.

"We got our own business, because you know the economy it is difficult to find jobs," said Yonen Melendez, 19, whose family owns the truck. "And it’s really difficult to work for someone, especially at minimum wage."

Melendez’s family first started selling food out of their home four years ago when his stepfather’s construction work was drying up.

"He had less and less work every day, so you know, and then all of a sudden it stopped completely,” Melendez said. “This was a little income, you know, but it still helped.”

Now there is enough income to pay five employees to help out at two different taco trucks.

Alma Uribe is an employee working the evening shift.

"Right now in my family, it just me earning. I’m paying all of our bills," Uribe said in Spanish. Her husband is another unemployed construction worker, and these days, he’s in charge of the house.

"The biggest sacrifice is for men who have to stay home and take care of the kids,” Uribe said with a laugh. “Which they don’t like!”

Some industries where Latino workers are well represented, like service work and hotels, have slowly begun to hire again locally, according to Jeremy Aguero, an economic analyst in Las Vegas with the firm Applied Analysis.

"For the Latino community the job growth has been better than what we saw a year ago," Aguero said.

Still, Aguero pointed out there is a lot of need out there. The Latino unemployment rate in Nevada is 14.5 percent.

"If you struggle with the language, your education is limited, the job prospects today in Southern Nevada are not robust," Aguero said.

And that may be the new long term reality here, since the booming job market that lured low-skilled workers here will likely not be back anytime soon.