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Earlier this year, the jobless rates for black and Latino Americans were near record lows. Coronavirus has changed that as the first round of layoffs fell hardest on minority workers. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports on why many are so vulnerable on the economic side of this crisis.
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DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Until a few weeks ago, Melissa St. Hilaire worked for a family in Miami on the night shift, taking care of a 95-year-old woman.
MELISSA ST HILAIRE: I help her to go to the bathroom, use the bathroom. And I watch TV with her, and I comb her hair out, sometimes, in the night.
KURTZLEBEN: But one day in March, the woman's daughter told her not to come back, saying she wanted to protect her mother during the coronavirus pandemic. That put St. Hilaire in dire straits. She was able to delay her rent payment. She describes the conversation with her landlord.
ST HILAIRE: I said to her my situation. She said OK. She understood my situation. She gave me more days. Two weeks before, I was out of food. That's crazy.
KURTZLEBEN: St. Hilaire and her 6-year-old son had nothing to eat, so they got help from a local aid group. St. Hilaire is black and a Haitian immigrant. And she's part of what the first data from this crisis have shown - that people of color have lost work at greater rates than white workers. A big part of that is because of which industries the job losses are happening in. According to Benga Ajilore, senior economist at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. He spoke to NPR via Skype.
OLUGBENGA AJILORE: We know which industries are being hit the hardest, so we look at leisure and hospitality, transportation, utilities industries that are first ones that were hit really hard. We also know service - so you can think hairdressers, salons. We know which ones are getting hit hard, and we know who is in those occupations.
KURTZLEBEN: It's disproportionately workers of color. And in the case of domestic workers like St. Hilaire, it's women of color. Nearly three-quarters of domestic workers were out of work in recent weeks, according to a survey from the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Similar patterns show up in industries hit hardest by the coronavirus slowdown. Black, Asian and Latino workers, for example, are all disproportionately represented in the hotel industry, and Latino workers like Erick Velasquez have heavy representation in restaurants.
ERICK VELASQUEZ: I've been working in the restaurant industry since I was 16, as soon as I was able to apply for a job. And I grew up with a single mother taking care of her two kids and her mom. So ever since I was young, I knew I had to, like, kind of help out.
KURTZLEBEN: After college, he went back to restaurant work, eventually becoming head bartender at a Greek restaurant in Houston. But once coronavirus spread, the restaurant bar didn't really need tending anymore. Velasquez has managed to find a temporary job - helping his fellow laid-off workers. He's a case worker now at the Southern Smoke Foundation, a nonprofit that supports people in the restaurant industry. And he sees racial and ethnic gaps among the people he's helping.
VELASQUEZ: Everybody in the restaurant industry is hurting right now. But more so, it's the people that you don't really see when you go into a restaurant. It's the back of the house - the workers, you know, the immigrant community, the people of color.
KURTZLEBEN: There's also evidence that black and Latino workers are less able to work from home than white and Asian workers. If all this persists, it could make existing inequalities worse. The unemployment rates for blacks and Latinos are always higher than the broader national unemployment rate. Wages for blacks and Latinos are also lower than for other groups. Ajilore thinks it was easier to ignore these types of gaps when the economy was humming along with record-low unemployment. Now the economic crisis brought about by the pandemic is holding a magnifying glass to those gaps.
AJILORE: Once this pandemic hit, then it's like you see the cracks in the structure.
KURTZLEBEN: And the more coronavirus widens those cracks, the harder they will be to fill. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.
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