NEW ORLEANS — Louisiana's unemployment rate has remained lower than the national average, which is now up to 9.8 percent. But making a living here is still a struggle for Latino immigrants, many of whom are undocumented and came to New Orleans to rebuild the city after Hurricane Katrina.
Latinos in Louisiana have been struggling for a couple of years to get back on their feet. Many are searching for a job, taking anything that will put food on the table. Some have had to be a bit more creative to keep their businesses going, while others have decided to go back to their home countries — all in order to survive in these hard times.
Traditionally the New Orleans economy has been dominated by four major sectors: oil; tourism; the port; and aerospace manufacturing. Of these, tourism continues to be the driving force of the economy, thanks to the French Quarter, Mardi Gras, and all of the festivals in the area. But with the city's ongoing recovery from Hurricane Katrina, and this year's BP oil disaster, tourism has not been at its highest.
Many Latinos are employed in the service industry, which includes hotels and restaurants. But even for those who are lucky enough to have a job right now, it has not been easy.
Maria, who did not want to give her last name, has been working in housekeeping for a major hotel downtown for several years. She says she has had to find houses to clean in addition to her job at the hotel.
"The hotel has not been filling up like in years past, and my hours have been cut. I can't live with this paycheck alone so I have had to find houses to clean to make extra money to pay our bills," she said. "I always worry, though, that my client might not ask me back to clean her house because these days it's a luxury to do that when that money can go toward something else. My husband is a mechanic and he has had trouble finding work, so we do what we have to do to survive."
Like Maria, Hector Perez has had to get creative in order to find work. He came to New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina hit and started working in construction.
"I used to send hundreds of dollars to Honduras in 2006 and 2007," he said, "but now I'm lucky to be able to send $200 a month."
Perez says that work has slowed down tremendously for him and since he is not documented, he can't just walk into an office and apply for a job.
His family has asked him to go back to Honduras, where he is guaranteed a roof and a meal everyday, instead of worrying when he will get his next job. But he says he is too stubborn to give up now.
"I have just started going back to the homes I worked on right after Katrina and offered my services. I tell them that I helped fix their houses after the storm and if they need something fixed now, they can call me or recommend me for handyman work. I've gotten a few calls because they remember me and trust me and that's why I think I can stay here a bit longer. If it gets too bad, I'll go back to Honduras with my family."
Although many Latinos here are unemployed or only have part-time work, Louisiana overall is showing growth in placing people in jobs. The Louisiana Workforce Commission does not have exact data on Latinos employed in the state, but it did find that unemployment rates decreased in all eight Louisiana metropolitan areas in September 2010. The unemployment rate in New Orleans was at 7.8 percent, down from 8.1 percent in August 2010. Baton Rouge was also at 7.8 percent, down from 8.2 percent the previous month.
LWC executive director Curt Eysink says the private sector continues to drive annual gains in jobs throughout the state.
"We had 24,100 more jobs in the private service-providing sector this year compared to last September," he said. "We're continuing to outperform the nation and the South, but Louisiana is not immune from the effects of the national economic downturn. It is encouraging that our labor force is growing and we have more people working today than a year ago."
When talking to people who have lost their jobs or can't find work, many admitted that they understood that not having legal status in this country affected them tremendously.
"We would have more options if we had our green cards," said Perez. "I can understand some English and can get by with the boss, but I have to take what comes to me. I don't have the luxury to apply for just any job; usually it's the jobs no one wants. I get really worried, though, when people who can work in this country can't find a job. What does that say?"
Brenda Melara is a writer for El Tiempo New Orleans.
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