SALT LAKE CITY — Viola Tovar’s restaurant rose from the ashes of a 2006 grease fire, the Great Recession and an unexpected move when a landlord announced a remodel. The Salt Lake standby sprouted five franchises and kept on many of the same servers for more than 30 years.
But La Puente has encountered no threat like the new coronavirus.
Tovar, who named the eatery for her New Mexico hometown, has laid off her waitstaff of more than 20 — many with her since the 1990s — including a server who just bought a home.
“It’s very heartbreaking,” said Tovar. “All we can do is pray and hope.”
Even with a humming takeout line serving up smothered burritos and other fare, business is down by 75%. Tovar, now in her 70s, stays home and tallies tickets at night as her four adult children run the restaurant without pay. Six others remain on payroll — a lunch crew of two cooks and a dishwasher, plus an identical nighttime team.
“Some days I worry a lot, because there’s hardly any sales. And other days, I go, ‘Yes, thank you, Lord,’” Tovar said. Her regulars continue to call in orders, but it doesn’t make up for plummeting royalties from her franchises, which are struggling more than her own shop. It’s income she uses to keep the lights on in her own home.
“Without that, I just don’t stand a chance,” she said.
Tovar and her staff are not alone. Hispanic workers are losing jobs and pay faster than the nation as a whole, and Utah — home to an estimated 450,000 Latinos — isn’t immune from the trend.
Behind the numbers
“They have been hit the hardest of all groups in this pandemic,” the Pew Research Center’s Ana Gonzalez-Barrera said of Latinos.
Many Latinos — 8 million nationally — work in the service sector, where many find themselves suddenly unemployed as the pandemic has emptied hotels, restaurants and shops.
While 1 in 3 Americans report they or someone in their household have lost a job or pay, nearly half of Latinos reported the same, according to a March survey led by Gonzalez-Barrera, a senior Pew researcher, and her colleagues. It’s another blow to a demographic that had not fully recovered from the Great Recession, she said.
More Hispanic workers — including many of Tovar’s — have also joined the nation’s jobless rolls. The Latino unemployment rate, at 6% in March, hovered above the overall 4.4%, and the numbers are likely to jump this month after businesses laid off many in the final days of March, Gonzalez-Barrera said.
She and fellow researchers found that the experience of Latino immigrants largely mirrors those born in the U.S., a finding that Gonzalez-Barrera said she didn’t expect. Yet the U.S.-born group trends younger, so it does not tend to have the same career stability, she said.
Figures from the Utah Department of Workforce Services bear out the harm to Hispanic workers in the Beehive State.
In Utah, nearly 9,000 — or more than 1 in 10 — who filed unemployment claims from March 15 to April 4 identified as Hispanic. More were working in Utah’s service industry than any other, followed by those in office and administrative support jobs. A person isn’t required to disclose ethnicity, so the actual figures may be higher.
While Utah is not under statewide lockdown, county leaders across the state — including in Salt Lake County, the state’s economic hub, and Summit County, rife with resorts — have ordered Utahns to stay at home and have shut down nonessential travel.
But many in the state’s Latino community don’t have the luxury of working from home.
“The majority of our clients are working-class families and immigrants,” said Mayra Cedano, executive director of the nonprofit Comunidades Unidas. “A lot of them are still out in the workforce, because many of them are having to face a really hard decision whether to stay at home or provide for their families.”
In downtown Salt Lake City, Silvia Lopez fights tears when she reflects on what might become of her livelihood. For the last three years, from Monday to Friday, Lopez proudly set up her taco stand La Estacion del Taco selling burritos, tamales and quesadillas.
Located at Main Street and 100 South, near the once-bustling City Creek Center and Temple Square, Lopez says the lack of tourists and the growing number of white-collar employees working from home have been detrimental to her business.
On a good day, Lopez used to be able to feed up to 150 customers during a six-hour shift. But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the 59-year-old from Veracruz, Mexico, said she has seen an average of two to five customers a day. Business is so slow, she’s had to ask her part-time employee to stop coming to work.
“You get here and there are no people. The streets are very lonely,” she said in Spanish, adding that the sight of the empty street makes her want to cry. Even after letting an employee go, Lopez said she still can’t make ends meet.
Lopez, whose typical hours ran from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., now closes shop at 2 p.m.
A longtime Utahn, she first arrived to the state more than 20 years ago. While she understands the city’s stay-at-home order is for everyone’s safety, she said she also has to make enough money to eat. It’s why she risks exposure to COVID-19 while taking all possible precautions each day.
With no family that can make up the difference and no savings, Lopez has relied on loans from close friends. Recently, Lopez said one of her regular customers, an Apple store employee, left her a $100 tip.
“I want to continue selling, because that is what I support myself with and it is what I do best,” she said. “I hope ... that they don’t take long and that people return, even if it is gradually.”
A trusted resource
At Comunidades Unidas, eight full-time employees and a group of 15 volunteers and interns are working tirelessly to connect Latino and immigrant communities to the correct resources and agencies regarding unemployment, financial aid and immigration status, said Cedano, the nonprofit’s executive director.
It’s one of few trusted organizations that Latinos in Utah have sought advice from during times of crises, she said. Some of the first unemployment-related calls the organization received were from Latinos in Summit County — an early coronavirus “hot spot” and one of the first in the state to issue a stay-at-home order.
She noted the concerns her employees are hearing are not just financial.
Additionally, her team has received multiple calls from undocumented immigrants asking about COVID-19 testing and whether it is safe to provide personal information to hospitals or government agencies out of fear of deportation.
Pew estimates place Utah’s undocumented population at 110,000, many of whom are Hispanic.
And Cedano disagrees with those who call coronavirus “the great equalizer.” In New York City, hit hardest in the nation, Mayor Bill de Blasio said 1 in 3 who have succumbed to the coronavirus were Latino, while more than 27% were black. The disparity doesn’t surprise Cedano.
“We’re very aware of that. And that’s why we’re really pushing to advocate for our communities just in so many different forms,” she said.
For decades, Latino communities have preferred getting critical information through trusted community organizations due to a lack of trust and mutual respect between the community and U.S. government institutions, according to Maria Montes, community engagement and organizing coordinator for Comunidades Unidas.
“We see that it is important for organizations like Comunidades Unidas to step up and really be the bridge between those government entities and our community members,” Montes said.
She said it was “heartbreaking” that undocumented Latino workers, especially those who pay income taxes, are being left out of the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The group is not eligible for unemployment benefits or small-business loans.
“They’re being left out. The doors feel like they’re being shut down on them,” she said.
Currently, if an undocumented person calls the organization for advice, Montes directs them to food pantries and community-based housing programs.
Under the “public charge” rule set in place by President Donald Trump’s administration, Montes said immigrants who use or are likely to use programs like Medicaid can have their visa or green card applications denied in the future, which can prevent some from seeking health care.
In mid-March, according to Montes, the organization met with health care providers to ensure that critical information related to COVID-19 was translated to Spanish quickly and that providers don’t create additional barriers for Latinos to access the resources they need.
In order to bring more confidence to immigrant communities, Comunidades Unidas employees wrote and posted a letter on their Facebook page for community members to carry explaining why they were outside in case they are stopped by police and don’t speak English.
The nonprofit has also provided tips for housecleaners, videos on breathing techniques to ease stress that come from quarantine measures and sharing information for millennials, who have traditionally acted as English-to-Spanish translators for their older relatives.
An uncertain future
Yet those millennials may be the most vulnerable in their family to lost wages and jobs. The Latino population tends to be younger as a whole and less likely to have a college degree — factors that make a person more vulnerable to pay cuts and layoffs, said Gonzalez-Barrera, the Pew researcher.
That’s especially so in Utah, where the state’s overall Latino population is younger as a whole than in neighboring southwestern states. Utah’s biggest wave of immigration from Latin America was relatively recent, in the 1990s, said Pamela Perlich, director of demographic research at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Institute.
Those who moved to Utah up to 30 years ago and started families now have adult children who are in the early stages of their careers, Perlich said.
The Beehive State’s Hispanic community may fare somewhat better than the nation’s, however.
A building boom in Utah, the nation’s fastest-growing state since 2010, could help balance out the job loss, Perlich said. Those constructing homes, schools and public projects like the new Salt Lake City International Airport — many of them Latino — are now considered essential workers.
“That would be a countervailing tendency,” Perlich said. “But the other sectors, service sectors where you see lots of Hispanics working, like hospitality, those sectors are just slammed.”
Montes pleads that immigrant and minority communities not be forgotten during the pandemic.
“They build our houses. They farm our food. They are the ones who are stocking up our grocery store shelves. They’re the ones working in the front lines in the hospitals to make sure that we have the care that we need. They’re the ones who clean our home. And we can’t forget about them. We cannot forget about them.”