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Three years ago, Latinas disappeared from the workforce. One in 5 were out of work in April 2020, the highest unemployment of any group of women — ever — at a time when women were losing jobs at an unprecedented rate. And yet Latinas have already marshaled a recovery that has outpaced most of their counterparts, hitting new historic highs just years out from historic lows.

Their unemployment rate now hovers at 4.4 percent, lower than even pre-pandemic levels. The share of Latinas ages 25 to 54, what is known as the prime-age working group, who are working or actively seeking work was 71.7 percent in August, just shy of the previous high they hit in June. And in terms of sheer numbers, about a million more Latinas are in the workforce today than in February 2020, before the economic downturn even began.

“Their recovery seems to have skyrocketed. Their labor force participation rates are currently at probably the highest levels they’ve ever been,” said Marie Mora, interim provost and a professor of economics at Metropolitan State University of Denver and an expert on Latinas in the workforce. 

The bounce back has just as much to do with what is happening in the economy as what is happening in households. 

Latinas make up about one-third of the service industry workforce, the sector that includes hospitality, health care and education jobs, which hemorrhaged positions when the pandemic began. No industry was hit as hard as hospitality, which lost about half of all its jobs in early 2020. 

Latinas also take on more caregiving responsibilities than just about any group, so when care needs were high at the start of the outbreak, they left work. Now many are returning to work because those jobs sustain their families. 

“It’s more than just saying they are in sectors that are recovering. Even in terms of their ability and willingness to participate in the labor force is picking up with trends …  It’s very encouraging to look at the numbers,” Mora said. “There is a part of me that feels relieved.”  

It’s an economic recovery that has flown under the radar and that few have studied, experts said. Economists are just now starting to analyze what is driving it.

What’s happened with the hospitality industry is one important piece of the recovery puzzle. The industry has been steadily and consistently adding jobs back every month since December 2020, even though it’s still about 300,000 positions short of where it was pre-pandemic. Carmen Sánchez Cumming, a researcher who has studied labor market disparities by race, ethnicity and gender, said that steady upward momentum in hospitality but also the education and health care industries has built stability back into the Latina workforce. 

Many of those jobs have returned with higher wages. Between 2019 and 2022, wages have increased at the fastest rate for workers in the bottom 10 percent of jobs in terms of pay — including many of those hospitality jobs like cooks, servers and housekeepers — according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute. Competition drove that, and so did the time and space to look for better opportunities. This year, economist Josh Bivens described what was happening: Essentially, workers who rely on their jobs to make ends meet for their families don’t often have the time to look for or even be aware of better opportunities. The pandemic created that time, and suddenly many started seeking better pay and benefits, driving up wages. 

Unions saw that dynamic and used it to quicken the pace of organizing in the years since the pandemic began, sparking movements led by women of color who are pushing for improved pay and working conditions in industries that range from service to entertainment, said Enrique Lopezlira, director of the Low-Wage Work Program at the University of California, Berkeley, Center for Labor Research and Education. One of the most prominent actions is the ongoing two-month strike by workers from 61 hotels in Los Angeles — a movement led by Latinas. That underscores a reality that women of color, who are more likely to be sole caregivers while also working, are driving a recovery not because they are necessarily prospering, but because they have no other choice but to work. 

That rings true for Maria Bedolla, a housekeeper at the Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas, who joined tens of thousands of workers earlier this week in voting to authorize a strike on the Las Vegas strip after their contract negotiations deteriorated.

“That’s part of the story of all who arrive in this country,” Bedolla said in Spanish. “We start working, it doesn’t matter what it is — we need work right away. In this job, there are women who are 65, 66, 67. They are never going to leave their jobs.” 

Bedolla emigrated to the United States from Mexico in 1996 and started working at Mandalay Bay shortly after. She has learned English on the job or from her kids, but she’s never had the opportunity to take formal lessons because of her long hours. She and many of the women she knows stay in one job their entire lives if it means avoiding going through an interview process, she said, where they don’t speak the language or may be discriminated against. 

Since the pandemic, Bedolla’s workload at the casino has grown as hotels have changed their policies so that rooms are no longer cleaned every day. Before, she’d clean 15 rooms in a day on the same floor. Now, she has to schlep across the entire casino to meet her 15-room quota, often encountering rooms that are filthy after days without housekeeping service. It has amplified the physical labor of her job. The back pain starts earlier. She may take two extra strength Tylenol with her lunch now. And when she gets home every night, she’ll take a shower and swallow two or three Advil to alleviate the pain, sometimes wishing her teenagers won’t ask her to make dinner. Going on strike, she said, is her last hope in an effort to cling to a job she’s held for two decades, one that has sustained six children.

“We can’t continue like this,” said Bedolla, 52. “We want our jobs, we want our benefits, but we also want to have a job where we don’t have to leave every day taking pills.” 

Latinas’ return to the workforce is intrinsically tied with family. Latinas tend to have more children, younger children and be single parents at rates higher than most other groups. They are three times more likely to be single heads of households than White women and they are also the most likely to live in multi-generational households

The pandemic put Latinas, many of whom were caring for children who were out of school or day care and parents who were susceptible to the disease, in an economic arroz con mango. They lost jobs, but could they find another if it meant there was no one to watch their child? If it meant they were returning to positions that put their parents at risk? According to census data, Latinas spent 30 percent more time caring for family members and 18 percent more time on household activities in 2020 when compared with 2019, while spending 8 percent less time on paid work. 

By comparison, White women spent nearly 9 percent less time in caregiving between 2019 and 2020. Overall, Latinas were the most likely group to leave a job specifically because of child care challenges — 32 percent had left work for that reason by August 2022, compared with 21 percent of women overall.

At the same time, men, and in particular Latinos, experienced the highest rate of COVID-19 deaths, “leaving a whole generation of children without parents, and mothers with the responsibilities of entire households,” said Patricia Campos-Medina, the executive director of the Worker Institute at Cornell University.

And so recovery was slow at first, but then started to pick up by the fall of 2021, as a new school year began, vaccines and boosters became more widely accessible, and jobs started to return at higher rates. By then, Latinas’ roles as caregivers had merged with their roles as providers, leading them back into the workforce.

“Even if you were able to receive pandemic relief and that helped you get through, you cannot stay at home — you have to get back to work,” Campos-Medina said. 

Undocumented immigrants do not qualify for any relief assistance, and so for them, a job is the only pathway to any economic security. But the idea of who can and who can’t afford to be out of work goes beyond just a paycheck. Many Latinx workers rely on their jobs to ensure they receive benefits like health insurance, Sánchez Cumming said: “Latinos often cannot afford not to work because either they don’t have access to certain government benefits or they’re afraid to ask for them.”

And if the jobs available can’t accommodate those caregiving needs, Latinx communities have often turned to entrepreneurship instead. Before COVID-19, Latinas were creating businesses at a rate six times higher than other groups, and generally, they are more likely to do so as a result of poor job opportunities, according to a report from UnidosUS. It’s unclear still how the pandemic has affected that — the most recent data on Latina entrepreneurs released by the U.S. Census Bureau is from 2019.

“Latinas are more likely to be pushed into entrepreneurship as opposed to pulled in,” said Mora, who studied entrepreneurship rates for Latinas pre-pandemic. 

But it’s possible the same space that allowed workers to find better jobs encouraged Latinas to create theirs, experts said. 

Claudia Cobreiro, an attorney in Miami, saw her work in real estate law slow with the economy during the pandemic. But that change of pace afforded her the time to think about how she could best grow her career.  

At the end of 2021, she decided to leave the firm where she had become a partner and instead start her own. As a young Latina, even in a city dominated by Latinx people, Cobreiro said she was often written off as too young or inexperienced despite her qualifications. 

“You generally do not see someone like me becoming a partner — I was 26 or 27. They think you know somebody or a relative, or mom and dad own your firm. Just a lot of stigma,” Cobreiro said. 

The pandemic was part of what caused her to realize she “didn’t want to depend on someone else for my own income.” She opened both Cobreiro Law and Top Notch Title, with six employees between them, in August 2022 focusing on family law, real estate and business law.

“It was a leap of faith,” she said, but it’s gone well. “Some days, I still can’t believe it, honestly.” 

Now the question for Latinas is how sustained their recovery can be long-term. Latinas still face a gender pay gap that is wider than every group of women, and in 2022 that gap actually widened slightly. Latinas now earn 52 cents for every dollar White men earn, compared with 54 cents the year prior. 

Studies have shown that people who are out of the labor force for prolonged periods of time can see their pay gap grow wider because they tend to return to jobs at lower wages as a result of employers perceiving that their skills have “depreciated” while they’ve been unemployed. 

And so it is not enough, economists said, for Latinas to simply be in jobs if not all of those are paying them appropriately for their experience. 

“I’m encouraged by seeing these recent trends but it should be with a cautionary note that Latinas are an increasingly important component of the labor force and we need to make sure that they have the same type of access to acquire human capital as we have for other workers,” Mora said. 

Guadalupe Bright, a mom of two in Columbus, Ohio, has spent the last year trying to find a job that will pay her well. Early in the pandemic, she was forced to leave her job working as an Spanish interpreter when it wouldn’t accommodate remote work for her during a high-risk pregnancy. Since, she’s searched for a position with the flexibility and pay she needs, as a parent to a 2-year-old who has autism and now a 6-month-old. The only job offer she’s received in that time period, to work with a school district, was for less than $20 an hour. 

“They’ve raised pay, but pay has been raised a lot for fast food jobs and grocery stores — which is great,” she said. “I’m looking for a more professional atmosphere… it’s harder to find work where they are willing to pay.” Her husband, who is a mechanical engineer, hasn’t had a pay raise since the pandemic began. 

Now in a tighter job market, Bright is faced again and again with interviewers who question how available she really is to work. Several have asked her whether she’d be able to keep up with the workload as a mom of young children, she said, or as she works to finish her doctorate degree in educational policy and leadership. And she doesn’t feel interviewers are willing to pay more for her bilingual skills, she said: “If you want a bilingual individual, you need to pay more. That’s a skill that’s very underrated”  

“I am a published author. I am finishing my PhD, I have managerial experience, I have experience with children, I have experience in the policy world. I’m a known advocate, and have experience working with legislators in my district,” Bright said. “I have to wonder: Is it a job shortage? Is it that I’m asking for higher pay?”

In other words, what does she need to do for the recovery to reach her?