Latinas Emerge as a Powerful Force in U.S. Job Market
Growing up, Mayra Macias often saw her father collapsed on the couch after a 14-hour day as a garbage man for the City of Chicago.
“He didn’t want to do it, but would do anything to get his family ahead,” says the 31-year-old daughter of Mexican immigrants. “I didn’t take their sacrifice lightly.”
Macias went on to graduate from Yale University and become one of 12 million Hispanic women who are a growing share of the U.S. labor pool. Today at her job as executive director of the Latino Victory Project she works to elect progressive Hispanics to political office.
Macias is an example of a salient feature of the U.S. economic expansion in recent years: The rise in women who want a job, or have one. And the labor participation rates for Latinas in particular stands out. Today, 61% of Latinas are participating in the labor force -- higher than the national rate for females of 59%, according to the November job report.
At a time when the Trump administration is aggressively cracking down on unauthorized immigration, the statistic shows that the U.S. economy remains dependent on migrants and their children for growth in the labor force.
The importance of Hispanic women in the workforce is expected to increase. By 2028, they are forecast to account for 9.2% of the total labor force, up from 7.5% in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Latinos -- both women and men -- will account for a fifth of the worker pool by then.
The ascent of working Latinas comes as the Federal Reserve is testing the limits of a tight labor market, an experiment that is also benefiting other groups such as African-Americans.
Ernie Tedeschi, a researcher at Evercore ISI in Washington, says rising educational attainment and possibly “shifting cultural norms” in Hispanic families are also driving Latina workforce engagement.
Yai Vargas, 36, came to America from the Dominican Republic at age 3. Her mom worked as a food server at Costco and her dad sold real estate. She worked her way through college and eventually made enough money to move into her own apartment.
“My mother didn’t speak to me for months because she was so appalled,” for breaking a cultural tradition by leaving home before marriage, says Vargas, founder of The Latinista, a company that helps women of color with career development.
The number of Hispanic women with college degrees has doubled in the past 10 years to 4.8 million, increasing their ability to engage with the workforce. Enrollment data shows a significant portion of Latinas remain enrolled in school after age 21, suggesting they are pursuing graduate degrees, or juggling school with work and family support.
The U.S. needs immigration to supplement its labor pool if policy makers desire higher economic potential over time. While the immigrant share of the U.S. population is just below historic highs set more than a century ago, some estimates of unauthorized immigration are declining. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell told lawmakers last month that immigration is a “key input” to higher rates of growth.
“Without immigrants, and their children, our labor force would actually shrink,” says Randy Capps, director of U.S. research at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.
Despite both labor market and educational gains by Hispanic women, their median weekly earnings -- at $661 -- lags other groups.
Marie Mora, a labor economist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says the wage gap could stem from a variety of causes. The Hispanic population tends to be younger and earlier in their careers, and there is a “disproportionate representation” of Latinas in service jobs, which tend to be low paying. A third cause could be bias, she says.
“We would expect that if you had a more educated group you would see some of these gaps narrow,” Mora says.
Barriers to work often give rise to business ownership and entrepreneurship in the Hispanic community. Mora says her research finds that a lot of Hispanic small business growth is driven by women, particularly immigrants. Entrepreneurship has helped bolster employment, but may not close the wage gap if it stems from being locked out of other forms of work, Mora says.
Diana Franco, the executive director of WE NYC, a city government program that provides support services for women entrepreneurs, says that an estimated 35%-40% of the more than 9,000 participants in the program since 2015 have been Hispanic. And the number of firms owned by women of color has increased at about double the rate of female-owned businesses overall since 2014, according to a 2019 report by American Express.
Ramona Cedeño, 43, started her business called FiBrick Financial Services in New York four years ago, after coming to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic when she was 18. Her first job was in a shoe store as she helped her mother pay the rent and save money to bring her three sisters to America, she says.
“My mother was always entrepreneurial –- she always had a side business at home,” says Cedeño, who’s a certified public accountant with an MBA from Fairleigh Dickinson University.
For Latinas, the impulse to go to school and work, as with many immigrant groups, often comes from watching their parents sacrifice as their families struggled to find a foothold in the economy.
“For us, failure means literally being on the street,” says Leslie Rangel, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who lives in Austin.
Rangel lived in a homeless shelter at age 8. That left an indelible mark on the 30-year-old TV anchor. “I knew that college would equal never being homeless again,” she says.
Looking at the women cleaning her office in the evening, Rangel says she has this thought: “I could be you; they could be me. We’re just one opportunity apart.”
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