Jose, 36, lost both his hotel jobs when the coronavirus pandemic shuttered much of the hospitality industry. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Until the coronavirus outbreak became a pandemic in March, Jose worked in two hotels in downtown Minneapolis. In one of his jobs he helped prepare for banquets: Setting up long tables of food and crowding guests’ place settings together so everyone could fit.

But that was when banquets existed.

“I don’t foresee myself doing that anymore,” he said. “Hopefully next year there will be a few banquets.”

Since arriving in Minneapolis from Central America 16 years ago, the hospitality industry has been the only line of work Jose has known. He has worked in the food and beverage industry, in bars and hotels, uptown and downtown. He’s enjoyed the customer service interactions, hearing people’s stories, how every day is a little different. But the coronavirus pandemic brought the industry to a shuddering halt.

“There were so many in Minneapolis who were let go,” he said.

The pandemic’s economic fallout has hit immigrant communities especially hard, both because immigrants are disproportionately likely to work in leisure, hospitality, and retail jobs that were particularly susceptible to cuts at the onset of the pandemic, and because many benefits for unemployed people are not available to undocumented immigrants.

Jose, 36, didn’t want to use his last name because he is undocumented. He wasn’t eligible for a $1,200 stimulus check and hasn’t been able to apply for unemployment insurance since he doesn’t have a social security number. As the weeks passed, he used up the paid time off he’d accumulated over his years at the hotels and spent his savings. His girlfriend has continued working for a cleaning company, which helps keep the family — Jose, his girlfriend, their 3-year-old daughter, and Jose’s aunt — afloat.

Jose could see the economy starting to change early. Typically, banquet season picks up in March after the slow months of January and February. But this year the slow season just got slower. Jose and his family took in another roommate to help pay the bills. Lots of people he knows are downsizing and crowding into smaller spaces, he said. 

“We all have less room than we used to,” he said.

On a national level, immigrants were more likely to lose their jobs in the coronavirus crash than U.S.-born citizens, according to data from Econofact and the Migration Policy Institute. In May, Latina immigrants had one of the highest unemployment rates at 21.1 percent, MPI data shows. The unemployment rate for Black immigrant men was also above average at 18.2 percent. The overall national unemployment rate in May was 13.3 percent. Minnesota’s is somewhat lower at just under 10 percent, with many of the job losses coming in the leisure and hospitality sectors.

While nationally the coronavirus recession hit Latino communities first and hardest, trends in Minnesota have been different, said Abigail Wozniak, an economist studying COVID-19’s impact as director of the Opportunity & Inclusive Growth Institute at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. In Minnesota, Latino workers lost jobs at a similar rate as white workers. But Black workers experienced disproportionate job losses right away. Wozniak said while it’s difficult to say why for certain these demographic trends diverged in Minnesota, part of the reason could be that Minnesota’s Black population has more immigrants than many other states.

The other Minnesota outlier Wozniak’s COVID-19 survey data reveals: Mask usage.

“Minnesota is a little bit behind the national average in the level of mask wearing that residents report,” Wozniak said. “It’s a state that prides itself on following advice, and to see the mask wearing lagging at the state level is concerning.” 

Wozniak has also been studying food insecurity, asking people whether they have run out of food and worry they won’t be able to buy more. Food insecurity is up everywhere since the pandemic began, she said, but particularly for workers and households of color–even with the stimulus payments and the increased unemployment insurance Congress passed in March. That’s in part because many people in immigrant communities didn’t qualify for those payments, she said.

“It’s important for people to understand how much of the supports and safety net are not accessible to those households,” she said.

Jose didn’t want to ask for help after he lost his jobs. He had savings and paid time off, and he figured other people needed help more. But after three months, his safety net ran out. In June, he and his family began frequenting the community food banks that sprang up in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd.

“We’re really thankful that there are so many people who are trying to help food-wise,” he said. In addition to the food banks, schools have developed programs to feed kids even while they are closed. His daughter is too young to be in school, but he knows these programs have helped other families. “That’s a big relief because they haven’t asked for any paperwork or status. They just help without asking.” 

Next week, Jose is scheduled for his first day of work since March. It’s a one-day job through a temp agency. He’ll be helping set up a corporate event at a golf course. He’ll be careful, wearing gloves and a mask. He can’t wait.

“At this point even if it’s just one little thing, one day, I’m taking it,” he said. “I’m really happy about this one day.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.