Too much work or not enough: Minnesota Latinos describe one pandemic but two very different economies
For the past year, COVID-19 rattled the job market across Minnesota. Latinos, more than any other racial or ethnic group, remained in the state workforce. But many found themselves on divergent paths. Pandemic shutdowns cost restaurant owners and staff their livelihoods. Meanwhile, construction workers and contractors booked more jobs than they could handle.
In a collaborative reporting project, MinnPost and Sahan Journal asked more than a dozen Latino workers and business owners to talk about how they survived the pandemic — and what they learned.
MPR News is a partner with Sahan Journal and will be sharing stories between SahanJournal.com and MPRNews.org.
By Joey Peters and Greta Kaul
Eloy Bravo’s biggest passion is his kitchen, which he compares to an artist’s studio space.
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There, four regular cooks work around the clock, preparing dishes from a mixture of recipes. Some come from Bravo’s own family, from the Puebla state in Mexico. Others come from friends in Minnesota. Once in a while, Bravo’s employees suggest new menu items.
But on this weekday summer morning, Bravo is working in the dining area of his Eagan, Minn., restaurant, Cielito Lindo, greeting regulars with a smile or a pat on the back. He’s hoping for a busy lunch hour.
Bravo is coming off his restaurant’s toughest year out of its six years in business. During 2020, sales dropped a whopping 70 percent compared to the previous year. It was even worse during the weeks Bravo had to shut down his dining area, he said.
The low point came in the fall of 2020, as Gov. Tim Walz mandated the closing of indoor restaurants and bars for the second time. Bravo thought this would be the death knell for Cielito Lindo.
“I told my guys, ‘We’re going to be in business probably another month or two, at most,’ ” he said. ”’If they don’t open back up, that’s it.’ ”
The year couldn’t have played out more differently for Eric Rodriguez. The pandemic came during Rodriguez’s second year running his own contracting business, Superior Builders, which does painting and restoration projects, mostly on residential properties.
It’s not that 2020 didn’t present challenges for Rodriguez. He was still figuring out what types of clients and projects fit the renovation niche he’s trying to develop. He said he also encountered trouble finding subcontractors “who are serious enough to build a business and understand what I’m doing.”
One problem Rodriguez didn’t have: finding enough construction projects to make it all work. A recent Friday afternoon illustrates what his workload looks like these days. Rodriguez and his uncle are wrapping up gutter work for a friend in Eagan, who, like Rodriguez, is the son of parents who immigrated here. It’s nearing 5 p.m. and Rodriguez is heading to one last job for the evening — a paint job in Eden Prairie.
On a short break between the jobs, Rodriguez speaks briskly between drags on an e-cigarette.
“Work picked up for me when corona hit, because of the obvious,” he said. “Homeowners sitting at home with nothing to do and getting stimulus payments. ‘Oh, we have a couple extra to throw around the house. Let’s paint!’ ”
A divided economy
When the pandemic hit Minnesota last March, many white collar workers took their laptops home and carried on with business as usual. Meanwhile, workers in front-line jobs — in fields like food and agriculture, construction, health care, cleaning and manufacturing — were more likely to be laid off, face reduced hours, or put their health at risk to keep working.
Minnesotans in Latino communities are more likely to work in these front-line jobs, exposing them more directly to the complications of the pandemic economy. Often, they didn’t have a choice: Being undocumented prevented many Latinos from qualifying for federal pandemic relief (although many undocumented workers pay taxes in the U.S.).
All of these factors played a role in Latinos getting hit disproportionately by the virus. In Minnesota, Latino Minnesotans suffered from confirmed COVID-19 cases at twice the rate of white Minnesotans.
Latino labor participation has remained high in the 15 months since COVID-19 first struck the U.S. But Bravo and Rodriguez’s divergent experiences during 2020 illustrate the divided nature of the economic recovery. They work in two economic sectors that rely heavily on Latino workers: restaurants and construction. Their experiences also display the complexities and diversity within one of Minnesota’s fastest-growing populations by race and ethnicity.
A snapshot of the Latino workforce
Latino Minnesotans make up about 6 percent of the state’s population: 314,000 people, including 209,000 of working age (that is,16 and older). They are a diverse ethnic group. Some were born in the U.S., while others were born in Central or South America. Mexican Americans make up the largest share — or 214,000 people — followed by Puerto Ricans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Ecuadorians.
In terms of work, Latino Minnesotans are diverse, too. Latinos work across all industries in Minnesota. But compared to the state’s overall population, they are more likely to work in sectors that include construction and restaurants.
When COVID-19 hit last spring, unemployment skyrocketed in the restaurant industry, as establishments were forced to close dining rooms and move to takeout-only. Almost immediately, many restaurant workers applied for unemployment, and the number of people working in the industry plummeted from nearly 172,000 to 111,000. The food industry wasn’t just hit hard in the beginning, though: Continued limits on restaurant capacity prolonged those losses. The industry regained some jobs as 2020 wore on, but lost them again late in the year when a spike in cases prompted the state to close restaurants and bars again.
As of May of this year, restaurant jobs still had a way to go to recover to pre-pandemic numbers.
Construction — a category that includes building construction, specialty contractors and civil engineering construction — fared better. Early on in the pandemic, some in the industry feared a repeat of the job meltdown that struck during the Great Recession, according to Cameron Macht, acting assistant director of Labor Market Information Office at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).
But that fear proved short-lived. Ultimately, employment data show construction jobs down only slightly compared to 2019, following the typical seasonal pattern that sees more jobs in the summer than the winter.
It wasn’t just jobs to be had in the construction industry, but wages, too. Restaurant workers who were still employed in 2020 averaged wages comparable to 2019 levels, at $368 per week, according to data from DEED. Construction workers, by contrast, surpassed their 2019 average wages of $1,334 per week, earning an average of $1,396 in 2020.
Trouble accessing COVID-19 relief
When Bravo opened Cielito Lindo six years ago, he designed it to resemble a 1950s diner, much like the New York City diners where Bravo first started working when he immigrated to the U.S. at age 13. It featured a jukebox, an Elvis replica, and American-style food like meatloaf and cheeseburgers.
Three years later, as sales remained slow, Bravo changed his business to a Mexican restaurant. Now, adobe pink walls, papel picado ceiling decorations, and a large plastic Modelo bottle adorn the dining area. As one of few Mexican restaurants in this area of the St. Paul suburbs, Cielito Lindo began to attract a regular clientele.
The pace kept up until early 2020, when suddenly Cielito Lindo, like all of the other 10,000 restaurants in Minnesota, got orders from the governor to close its dining operation. Soon, Cielito Lindo was taking in only $300 to $400 a day, far less than what was needed to cover the restaurant’s $35,000 monthly operating expenses.
Bravo managed to keep his four cooks employed, but laid off five of his servers. During 2020, he and his cooks took turns delivering takeout meals.
It’s now been several weeks since the state lifted its masking mandate, and the number of new daily COVID-19 infections across the metro looks low. That’s helping Bravo’s restaurant start to recover business.
Bravo, who is 52, sits in a booth, taking a break before the noon rush. He gestures toward Maria, one of his four daughters, who is seating customers and taking orders. “She is my right hand,” he said.
Accessing pandemic support
If it weren’t for Maria, 21, Cielito Lindo could not have accessed federal recovery money last year. When Bravo came to the U.S. at age 13, he decided to skip schooling and go straight to work.
“That was the biggest mistake I made in my entire life,” Bravo said. “Give me a newspaper, and I can read it, I can understand it. But I cannot write. So I always have to ask somebody to fill out the paperwork.”
Ultimately, Bravo secured only one payout from the federal Paycheck Protection Program: a federal relief program that made business loans — often forgivable — to help keep workers on payrolls during the pandemic. The restaurant got $12,000, just enough to cover a couple of weeks’ worth of expenses. Otherwise, Bravo dipped into his own pockets to keep afloat.
“All of the money I was saving for years, it’s gone in one year,” he said.
When the federal government offered a second round of PPP loans for struggling businesses, it came at a time when Bravo was making an unplanned trip to Mexico for a family emergency. By the time he got back to Eagan, the deadline to apply had expired.
Many Latino business owners also had trouble accessing federal aid for their operations during the pandemic. Some 90 percent of Latino business-owner respondents in Minnesota reported problems with accessing information about federal PPP loans, according to a survey released earlier this year by the University of Minnesota Extension and Hispanic Advocacy and Community Empowerment Through Research (HACER).
Less than half of Latino business owners responding to the survey ended up receiving aid through the federal program.
Rodolfo Gutierrez, the executive director of HACER, said many Latino-owned businesses didn’t receive information about federal PPP loans until it was too late. Others didn’t have the paperwork necessary to secure a loan.
“So many of them found that they didn’t qualify for many of the supports that were there,” Gutierrez said.
This barrier to accessing aid wasn’t limited to PPP loans or business owners. An estimated 92,000 undocumented people live in Minnesota, according to the Migration Policy Institute, and the majority are Latino.
Undocumented workers cannot claim unemployment, which means the number of Latinos who lost their jobs amid the pandemic — based on unemployment statistics — is likely an undercount, said Christina Ewig, the faculty director of the Center on Women, Gender and Public Policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.
Ultimately, many undocumented Minnesotans were excluded from receiving federal stimulus payments.
Lack of aid
When COVID-19 arrived in Minnesota, Emmanuel A. faced both the loss of a job and the inability to apply for unemployment and stimulus payments.
Emmanuel, who didn’t want his last name published for this story, has worked in restaurants since coming from Mexico to the U.S. 13 years ago. He remembers well the date when he had to halt working as a server at an Edina restaurant: March 17, 2020.
He wouldn’t work in a restaurant again for nearly an entire year.
While out of work, several of his former co-workers accessed unemployment and stimulus money. “They were living the life, they were traveling,” he said, “while I was trying to figure out, where am I going to get money?”
Emmanuel managed to find one part-time job for three months during 2020. On behalf of a pair of groups, Restaurant Opportunities Center of Minnesota and Working Partnerships, he helped distribute $200 checks to other out-of-work restaurants workers who couldn’t access federal aid.
This job provided some relief, but it wasn’t enough to stop Emmanuel from plowing through the $8,000 he had saved before the pandemic hit.
Now things are looking up. In the last few weeks, people have returned to eating at the restaurant where he works and he has noticed they’re tipping staffers generously.
“People are more giving, because this is the first wave of people coming after the pandemic. They’re happy and saying, ‘I’m glad you’re open,’ ” he said. “I’ve been making a lot of money, to be honest.”
His workplace, however, remains short-staffed, and he said some people he knows are still staying home on unemployment. “I have a friend who’s getting $800 a week,” Emmanuel said. “He said, ‘I’m just going to squeeze this as much as I can.”
Small-scale alternatives to pandemic relief
Restricted access to aid prompted many Latinos to seek other ways to support themselves through the pandemic. Some workers ended up borrowing money from others, said Rosa Herrera, a co-founder of Partnership Academy, a Richfield charter school that serves mostly Latino students. Organizations like Partnership Academy also found ways to provide aid to the community, like helping out families that struggled with rent payments.
During the pandemic, Herrera said she also helped La Red Latina de Educacíon Temprana, a community network of Latino childcare providers, distribute $100,000 of aid to needy families.
Other small-scale initiatives were launched to help undocumented workers. A coalition of local pro-immigrant organizations, for example, launched the MN Immigrant Families COVID-19 Fund and fundraised nearly $300,000 to distribute to undocumented families.
But these efforts couldn’t touch the volume of federal aid that went to many workers during the pandemic.
“It’s been really frustrating for people,” Herrera said.
Staying in the labor force
Economic realities like these likely fueled one important finding in the state data: Latinos were the most likely ethnic group to stay in the labor force throughout the pandemic.
Despite layoffs hitting some Latino-reliant industries, Minnesota’s Latino population remained in the labor force at higher rates than white or Black Minnesotans. (Due to limited sample size, data are not available for Asian Minnesotans.)
Labor-force participation measures the share of people over age 16 working or actively looking for work. The number is generally high for Latinos, one of Minnesota’s youngest racial or ethnic groups. But while white Minnesotans and Black Minnesotans saw decreases in labor-force participation, the rate for Latinos grew.
“That was really the only group that saw that happen,” Macht, at DEED, said. In construction, Hispanic and non-Hispanic Minnesotans fared similarly in employment over the course of the pandemic. But in restaurants, Hispanic Minnnesotans stayed in their jobs at higher rates than non-Hispanics.
Between the third quarter of 2019 and 2020, the number of Latinos working restaurant jobs fell 22.7 percent, compared to a 27.4 percent drop for non-Hispanics. (State data sometimes use “Hispanic” and sometimes “Latino.” The former refers to Spanish speakers and the latter to people from Latin America.)
“Now, they still fared poorly, because that industry cut a significant number of jobs,” Macht said, but Latinos managed to stay in the hard-hit industry at higher rates.
Plenty of work in contracting, but lingering concerns over danger and underpayment
Eric Rodriguez didn’t need supplemental income for his business to help him get through the pandemic.
Rodriguez is on a self-imposed 10-year plan to build his business and professional reputation. Among his many goals is to make $100,000 a year. He wouldn’t disclose whether he’s earning this much yet, but he did offer an encouraging hint: “I’m getting close.”
At 28, Rodriguez is still in the early stages running Superior Builders. In any other recession, the last year might have been a challenging one for him. But demand for building contractors boomed amid the pandemic.
Rodriguez’s experience in construction goes back to his years as a teenager growing up in St. Paul. As a 16-year-old, one of his uncles taught him how to build rooftop decks. By 20, he was already running his own business as a roofing contractor. But he quickly grew tired of the backbreaking labor that came with roofing and spent his mid-20s working as a medical interpreter.
After a half-decade in that line of work, he decided to come back to contracting and build his business in a different niche: painting and restoration. Now, he spends his days doing interior and exterior paint jobs on old houses that need the work.
Before the pandemic, Rodriguez worked mostly on commercial buildings in Uptown. After COVID-19 hit, his commercial work diminished, but residential work spiked.
With many younger people buying homes for the first time, Rodriguez is optimistic about his trade. But starting a business from scratch isn’t easy. Even during a building boom, contractors have to be savvy about finding jobs, estimating the right profit margin, and then managing the project. It’s a lot of work.
“I wear all the hats, being the sales guy, the marketing guy, the office administrator, running the estimates, and getting everything together,” he said. “It ends up being a lot of pressure.”
Costs to construction
Finding enough work isn’t a problem. In fact, Rodriguez said he frequently turns down potential jobs. Each month, he gets about 10 potential clients seeking a bid from him. But not all of them are willing to pay what he considers a fair price. “If the client smokes in their house, for example, and I have to do all this labor, and I’m being honest with them that it’s going to be way more work than they thought,” he said. “Then I just walk away.”
Many contractors, however, don’t feel free to turn down clients. For Jefferson Mendoza, roofing work wasn’t hard to find during the pandemic. But he said he took low-margin jobs because so many clients balked at what he thought were reasonable bids. He says he took some jobs that pay a labor rate as low as $60 per roofing square. In the roofing business, a square translates to 100 square feet of roof area. The average labor cost per roofing square, according to residential construction site HomeAdvisor, ranges between $150 and $300, though Mendoza said market value for him is closer to $85 per square.
Mendoza, 30, has worked in roofing for the past 12 years. He’s been in Minneapolis for just a little longer than that, after immigrating here from Guatemala.
Speaking in his kitchen in a south Minneapolis basement apartment, Mendoza discusses his last year of work while his 2-year-old daughter runs back and forth between the kitchen and the living room, riding a toy truck.
Two tattoos on each of his thumbs display his love for both of his hometowns. On his right thumb is an outline of Guatemala, with a red heart inked over Guatemala City. Mendoza got it after Hurricanes Ita and Iota ravaged his home country last year. His left thumb features a similar tattoo of Minnesota, with a red heart over Minneapolis. He got it after the state was hit with the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread destruction following the murder of George Floyd.
“With the protests happening here, I’ve never seen anything like that,” Mendoza said.
He speaks about recurring pain in his hips and knees. Last March, he fell two stories while working on a townhome. A colleague of his slipped and Mendoza grabbed him to try to prevent the fall. The weight was too much for Mendoza to handle, he said.
As he tumbled, Mendoza landed on an eave of a roof below him and then bounced off the side of a dumpster before landing on the concrete. There’s a skill to falling that you learn on the job, he said.
“I was somewhat lucky because I fell the right way and caught my fall in three different places,” he said.
Mendoza’s injuries from the fall kept him from working for three weeks. He’s currently trying to get reimbursed for the hospital stay through worker’s compensation.
The danger he encounters on the job doesn’t stop at accidents. Just the other week, Mendoza recalled how he and his crew felt under pressure to finish a roof job in one day. It was a sweltering 95 degrees outside, which exhausted his crew and caused everyone to work more slowly than usual. During the day, they often got frustrated and yelled at each other.
“There are some houses you just never want to remember again after the job,” Mendoza said.
Despite all this, Mendoza said he plans to continue working in roofing because he has no other options. He reflects on a saying his grandfather always told him: It’s easier to work with a pencil than with a shovel.
All of which points to another observation: While the pandemic has kept the construction market healthy, workers like Mendoza and Pascual Ramos Rodríguez say it hasn’t altered fundamental challenges working in the industry. The added demand for home improvements during the pandemic economy has not necessarily led to more pricing power. Both said they’ve experienced wage theft, and both believe this practice is here to stay.
“These people who robbed salaries before the pandemic, they’re going to do it after,” said Pascual, who’s been working on interior residential remodeling projects for the last 20 years. “They’re not going to stop.”
‘It’s what I know how to do, and I like doing it’
Pascual Ramos Rodriguez (no relation to Eric Rodriguez) believes that clients take advantage of workers like him because he is undocumented and doesn’t speak English. He’s originally from Mexico and has spent seven years in Minnesota. He usually works 10-hour shifts, six days a week.
“It’s what I know how to do, and I like doing it,” Pascual, 48, said of construction work.
Pascual, who lives in Minneapolis, plans to work in construction as long as he can. But, like Mendoza, he said clients often undervalue him. Last fall, he was remodeling a house that his client was flipping. His work included installing drywall, new framing and new tiling, among other tasks.
“He kept adding stuff to the contract that we didn’t agree to, and then he refused to pay for it,” Pascual said.
Pascual eventually got the client to pay him $2,000 with the help of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha, a labor-advocacy group. But victories like this are rare in the industry.
He’s also seen a worker shortage for construction jobs this year. As to why this is happening, he has a theory.
“It’s because they’re going to pay you so little and work you like an animal,” Pascual said.
Finding a workforce in 2021
Restaurant and construction businesses may have fared differently over the course of the pandemic, but they’re facing similar challenges now as the pandemic enters its hopefully last act: They need workers.
Bravo’s business at Cielito Lindo in Eagan is up by two-thirds compared to the worst parts of last year. But now he’s having trouble finding workers. He said the supplemental $300 weekly payments for laborers on unemployment present a disincentive for people to come back to work.
“I think it’s time for the government to take the help away so that people start looking for jobs,” he said. “We have a lot of problems right now, and there’s no helpers. I’ve been in this country for the last 35 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this. Never.”
Bravo said he’s not sure what happened to the servers he employed before the pandemic. He’s heard that some went into construction.
Luis Paiz, whose family owns Mañana, a Salvadoran restaurant that’s a fixture on St. Paul’s East Side, has been hearing the same thing.
A help-wanted sign out front, advertising for a pupusa cook job, has hung in the front window for weeks.
Business at the restaurant, founded 22 years ago by Paiz’s mom, Rosario, is picking up again. And as former restaurant workers or regulars come in again, Paiz said he gets the sense that some who were working in restaurants have moved into other industries
“They’re doing light jobs in construction, painting or siding, or roofs,” he said. Others have gone into sales.
Of two people the restaurant has hired recently, Paiz said one is gone already and the other has asked for more flexible hours.
Help-wanted across industries
This trouble finding workers may be one of the rare similarities between restaurants and construction.
A historically high number of people remain out of work, either because their jobs have disappeared or because they’ve stopped seeking work. “Now hiring” signs can be spotted nearly everywhere, it seems. Yet labor-force participation across the state, which dipped during the pandemic, remains low: In May, there were roughly 40,000 fewer people in Minnesota’s labor force than there were two years prior, before COVID-19.
Construction firms are hiring, too: A survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis conducted in May found the majority of construction firms either stable on employment or hiring. The vast majority said the availability of workers was tight.
That’s been the case for Alejandro Cruz-Guzman, the owner of Neva Remodeling, a company that repairs homes after damage from things like mold, fire, and water.
“My job, or my business, is mainly managing, but now I have to go into the field and do some work myself,” he said. “We’re finding it difficult to have enough people to do the work.”
Changing work-life dynamics
Lots of factors have contributed to the shrinking of Minnesota’s labor force during the pandemic. For one, many people are still out of jobs as the state exits the COVID-19 pandemic. But the solution isn’t as simple as inserting jobless people back into the labor force wherever there are openings. For some jobs, there are mismatches in skills and location between those looking for work and the jobs available.
Parents have faced bumpy child care situations for the last year, and now kids are home for the summer, keeping some parents home to care for them. One data point suggests some Minnesotans may be rethinking their relationship with work: According to a survey by the Minneapolis Fed and DEED, many job applicants are looking for remote work this year.
“[We’re seeing] a lot of individuals coming in the door that are having a real shift in values,” said Jinny Rietmann, the executive director of Workforce Development, Inc., a nonprofit agency that helps connect workers with jobs in southeastern Minnesota.
At Frida Drywall Systems, a Bloomington-based company in its sixth year of operation. Karla Arceo, who owns the company with her husband, said her company is still employing roughly the same number of workers as last year. But they’re not all from Minnesota.
“We are bringing in people from Nebraska and Texas,” Arceo said.
Part of the problem is that younger people aren’t entering construction and trades apprenticeships, she said, and the existing workforce is aging. Arceo said the pandemic showed people the possibility of working remotely, which is attractive to younger people. She sees a workforce problem looming in her industry.
“Everybody I interviewed, they want to work from home,” Arceo said. “I need to change that mentality.”
While she’s having trouble finding workers to help build the new apartment complexes that Frida Drywall has contracts for, applicants are lining up for a different opening: a bookkeeping gig in the office.
Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. Greta Kaul is a data reporter for MinnPost.
Additional reporting by Andrew Hazzard.
This piece is part of a collaboration that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, The Beacon/KCUR 89.3; Bridge Michigan/Side Effects Public Media; Cicero Independiente/South Side Weekly; Detour Detroit/Planet Detroit/Tostada Magazine; Evanston RoundTable/Growing Community Media; Madison365/Wausau Pilot & Review; and MinnPost/Sahan Journal. The project was made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with additional support from INN’s Amplify News Project and the Solutions Journalism Network.