Opportunities still scarce for local Latinx workforce

While their population continues to grow, economic opportunities for Latinx workers in Dane County remain limited.
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Hispanics may be the second largest ethnic group in Dane County, but the economic opportunities available to the local Latinx population remain hard to come by. It’s particularly unfortunate given how vital the Latinx workforce has been during the COVID-19 pandemic to keeping essential businesses and industries up and running.

In the United States, COVID-19 has devastated the lives of essential workers, their families, and their communities. While many in the U.S. have been able to work from home during the pandemic, those who grow and prepare the country’s food, care for the sick, maintain the state’s infrastructure, and educate the nation’s children must leave home to do their jobs.

These workers face risk of infection and illness each day on the job. Workers of color and Latinx workers face greater risks than their non-Latinx, white counterparts and suffer poorer health outcomes as a result. The Voices of Wisconsin Workers report, prepared by the University of Wisconsin School for Workers (SFW) in partnership with the University of Wisconsin – Population Health Institute, presents the concerns about workplace safety expressed by workers in several industries deemed essential.

An additional report, Healthy Workers, Thriving Wisconsin, also prepared earlier this year by the UW Population Health Institute, further analyzes three policies and their impact on worker health and COVID-19 spread: paid sick leave, workers’ compensation changes, and direct payments. Among the report’s findings:

  • The virus has had inequitable impacts in Black, Latinx, Native American, and rural communities.
  • Most undocumented workers do not have a source of income if they stay home to quarantine and/or isolate.
  • Undocumented immigrants were excluded from federal emergency financial assistance and are less likely to have access to replacement income if they need to isolate and/or quarantine.
Baltazar De Anda Santana

Baltazar De Anda Santana

According to Baltazar De Anda Santana, executive director of the Latino Academy of Workforce Development, the Latinx community in Dane County and Wisconsin is an asset that is continuously underrecognized.

“Our Latinx workforce is a huge component of the economic engine that keeps moving the county and the state, and yet we continue being an afterthought,” says De Anda Santana. “Latinos have contributed to Wisconsin’s economy for many years. The members of our Latinx community are hardworking individuals, business owners, and entrepreneurs with the drive to continue moving our community forward.

“Even though the Latinx community is a hard-working community, we are still struggling with access to health coverage, housing, and paid sick leave,” continues De Anda Santana. “Our community continually suffers from workplace discrimination and the lack of opportunities for advancement in their workplace.”

De Anda Santana says that for the local Latinx community to advance, it needs to have a place on the table. “We need to be at the conversation when decisions that affect our communities are being made. The nature of Dane County’s workforce is changing, but we still have very limited opportunities and resources, even before the pandemic. The Latinx community continues growing in the county and the state. Our workforce and educational institutions need to ensure their environment is equitable to everyone.”

According to the latest census figures released this summer, Hispanics now make up 7.5% of the population in Dane County, up from 5.9% in 2010. However, services and opportunities have yet to catch up to that dramatic spike in population growth, and the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated those disparities.

“COVID-19 tremendously affected our Latinx community,” explains De Anda Santana. “At the Latino Academy of Workforce Development, 85% of our students lost their total or partial employment due to COVID. The Latinx community was one of the most affected communities by COVID and as a community we are still working hard to recover from what COVID did and continues doing.

“However, our Latinx community has demonstrated its resilience during COVID,” adds De Anda Santana. “They were a large part of the essential workers that kept our county and state moving while many others had the privilege to work from home. Our Latinx community sustained the county and state economy during COVID.”

Despite their contributions, many of the members of the Latinx community were not eligible to receive federal funding. This prompted the Latino Consortium for Action to come together, raise funds, and distribute a total of $1,184,014.56 in aid to individuals and families. Funds were raised from donor contributions, local foundations, and United Way dollars, as well as $465,484.82 in CARES Act relief funding through Dane County. A total of 2,112 applications were received for aid within two weeks of making the fund accessible.

The level of need only highlights the work that still needs to be done at the local and state level to level the playing field for Hispanics, says De Anda Santana. “Policies that support our Latinx community can provide more opportunities to our Latinx community, which at the end will benefit the whole state.”

Not much has changed

Five years ago, IB reported on the release of Struggling for a Better Life, a February 2016 report by the Latino Workers Project (LWP), which sought to capture the reality for Latinos living and working in Dane County.

That report was an update of Can’t Afford to Lose a Bad Job, released in 2001, which documented the dramatic increase in the Latino population (101% in 10 years) and the Latino community’s continuing struggle with substandard working conditions and persistent barriers to moving forward economically.

At that time, Patrick Hickey, director of the Workers’ Rights Center of Madison, noted, “The Latino community here in Dane County is growing by leaps and bounds. That’s a large consumer base, but also an increasing small business base. You’re seeing a lot of Latino entrepreneurs who are starting small businesses, which provides a lot of energy and drive in the community. So, a crucial part of our community is growing and when their wages are depressed, when their benefits are depressed or nonexistent, that really does affect everyone.”

Hickey explained that the lower wages many Latino workers take home reduces the amount of consumer spending that goes on, it forces people to rely more on public and private social services, and it keeps people from buying homes and making other purchases they otherwise would make if they had the economic capacity to do it.

“We hear all the time that what’s needed is more education so people can move up to better paying jobs,” said Hickey. “There’s certainly some truth to that but these essential jobs that need to get done — the janitorial jobs, the restaurant jobs, the dairy worker jobs — those need to be living wage jobs, too. Those things have to get done and somebody has to do them.

“So, if someone is going to be working 40 hours, they should earn enough to rent a modest apartment here in Madison, pay their basic bills, maybe have enough so in their spare time they can go to school or take English classes so they can move up to a more interesting and engaging type of employment,” Hickey added. “No one who is working full-time should be living below the poverty line.”

Many of the 10 recommendations highlighted in the Struggling for a Better Life report are still relevant today. Those include:

  1. Enact comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level so immigrants have a better path toward full citizenship.
  2. Give Latinos a more powerful voice by finding ways to better engage this community in the political advocacy process.
  3. Make it easier for Latino immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, to get driver’s licenses, a policy supported by the Madison Police Department and many other law enforcement organizations, because the required exams and road tests lead to more safety for everyone on the road.
  4. Allow undocumented students to pay in-state college tuition. At least 20 states have tuition equity laws for qualifying students. Wisconsin was among them prior to the Walker administration.
  5. Enact stronger penalties for employers found guilty of wage theft. Currently, all a violator has to do in most cases is pay back wages.
  6. Increase the state and/or federal minimum wage. According to the report, the hourly wage needed to meet the cost of living in the Madison area is double the wage of most of the workers surveyed.
  7. Provide equal treatment for all workers, regardless of immigration or work authorization status.
  8. Provide health insurance to all workers, regardless of immigration status.
  9. Improve workplace health and safety by increasing funding for OSHA enforcement.
  10. Better educate workers and employers about labor laws, workers’ rights, and protections.

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