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October 2, 2014

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Recession deeper, lingering longer for Nevada Hispanics, UNLV report asserts

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Steve Marcus

A carpenter works on a new home at a residential construction site in the west side of the Las Vegas Valley in Las Vegas, April 5, 2013. Las Vegas Strip casinos are shown in the background.

A new report from UNLV Brookings Mountain West shows unemployment among Hispanics in Nevada surged during the recession, outpacing the jobless rate among other groups, and has been slow to bounce back.

Between 2007 and 2010, Hispanic unemployment increased from 6.5 percent to 18.6 percent. The overall unemployment rate for Nevada peaked in October 2010 at 14.5 percent. In 2012, the Hispanic unemployment rate was 13.6 percent while the overall rate for the state was 9.8 percent.

The study’s authors, UNLV professors John Tuman and David Damore, and recent graduate Maria Jose Flor Agreda, point to the Hispanic workforce’s over-representation in residential construction and the service industry, two of the sectors hardest hit by the recession, as a key factor in the elevated rates.

“Historically, the discussion has been that the hospitality industry here is recession-proof, but that certainly was not the case this time,” Tuman said. “Hispanics also make up a large share of residential construction labor, which came to a virtual standstill.”

Between 2003 and 2006, flush years for the residential construction business, 24 percent of Hispanics who were employed in Nevada worked in construction. By 2012, that figure fell to 7.6 percent.

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Aurelio Salazar, 57, has worked in construction in Las Vegas since 2000. By the end of 2008, after years of steady work, he could not find any jobs.

In 2009, he could not make rent on the apartment he shared with his wife and two children. Desperate, his wife went to live with a friend in the area and he went to live with a different friend. Salazar took a job at a car wash, making a fraction of what he earned on construction jobs, to make ends meet.

“It was a crisis,” he said. “There was no work anywhere for a while. I went to the Home Depot where the day laborers hang out in the parking lot (hoping to be hired for landscaping and odd jobs), but there were tons of people and only a few jobs. It was impossible.”

Eventually, Salazar found work and brought his family back together under one roof, but doing so meant spending months out of town working on a road project in Arizona.

Salazar now has found relatively steady work with a roofing company after years of going from job to job.

“These days, I’ll go a couple days, maybe three days, without a job here and there,” he said. “But it’s better than before when there was no work anywhere in the area.”

The UNLV study found that the actual unemployment levels for Hispanics in the state were most likely higher than the official numbers because the unemployment rate does not factor in “discouraged” workers, people who are available and able to work but have given up actively looking for employment. Between 2008 and 2009, the Hispanic labor force participation rate fell from 75.5 percent to 69.8 percent.

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Anthony Valdez, 54, an instructor at the Laborers’ International Union training center on Bonanza Road, said many construction workers stayed in the Las Vegas Valley and waited out the recession, but many others left for Arizona, California and other states.

The Laborers’ Union Local 872 had more than 6,000 members during the boom years and now is down to 3,500, Valdez said. Of those, about 700 are on the out-of-work list.

“A lot of guys left the state, and in some cases guys can transfer from one union local to another to make the transition easier,” Valdez said. “Other guys took minimum-wage jobs and tried to wait things out, but if you don’t have a college education, there aren’t many jobs out there that pay as well as construction.”

Indeed, the UNLV researchers observed the groups with the highest unemployment rates in the state — Hispanics and blacks — also have the lowest average educational attainment.

During the depths of the recession in 2010, unemployment was 19 percent among Hispanics, 22 percent for blacks, 14 percent for whites and 12 percent for Asians. According to data for the class of 2013, the high school graduation rate is 55 percent for Hispanic students in Nevada and 45 percent for black students. By comparison, 76 percent of Nevada’s Asian students and 69 percent of its white students graduated.

“There is a narrative of attacks on higher education — that it’s no longer important in securing a good-paying job, but that is not borne out by national data and it’s not borne out by what we saw here,” Tuman said. “Education makes a difference. The people with higher levels of educational attainment had lower levels of unemployment. It’s a very clear pattern.”

The study’s authors argue that improved funding and resources for public education and job training programs, including taking better advantage of federal grants to retrain laid-off workers, could boost the adaptability of Nevada’s workforce.

“The mismatch between the state’s demography, its economic needs and current education policy provides a significant barrier to overcoming cycles of economic boom and bust that have defined the Silver State since statehood,” the report states.

Young males were the hardest hit in the recession, according to the study. Hispanic males ages 16 to 18 had an unemployment rate of 31 percent in 2012.

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Valdez said construction has picked up, including homes being built and new Strip projects like the renovation of the Sahara into the SLS, but is still not enough to make a serious dent in the jobless rate. His eyes grew wide with excitement when he thought of the impending groundbreaking on Genting Group’s Resorts World Las Vegas at the north end of the Strip.

“A lot of guys are still waiting for the market to turn and have been biding their time hoping construction jobs come back,” he said. “Now, you are living day to day with little job security. You mostly live off faith and hope that it’s going to turn around and pick up this year.”

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