Joana Perez’s husband recently went back to work after the flower market where he works in Los Angeles closed down for almost four months during the coronavirus pandemic. But his comeback came at a price.
“He’s still working the same amount of days and hours, but he had to negotiate a pay cut in order to just go back to work,” said Perez, 35, who is seven months pregnant.
Her husband works from 4 a.m. to about 2 p.m. six days a week, “but the paycheck is not the same” since the flower wholesale business that employs him saw a significant slowdown as in-person events declined because of the pandemic.
Perez, her husband and their six children are among the many Latino families reporting serious financial problems, including pay cuts, running out of savings and difficulties affording food and rent, according to a poll published this month from NPR, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
A large majority of Latino households (72 percent) said they're facing serious financial problems due to the pandemic, compared to 60 percent of Black households and 55 percent of Native American households. Asian and white households report facing the same issue at drastically lower rates, 37 and 36 percent respectively.
More than 6-in-10 (63 percent) adults in Latino households reported either job losses, furloughs or reductions in their wages and work hours. Among Latino households with job or wage losses, almost 9 in 10 Latinos (87 percent) reported having serious financial problems.
The most reported financial issue among Latino households is the lack of savings. Close to half (46 percent) said they've used up all or most of their savings and an additional 15 percent said they lacked savings prior to the coronavirus.
Over a third of Latino households report facing difficulties paying their credit card bills, loans or other debt as well as utilities, mortgage or rent.
"The findings are not what we expected. They're actually much worse," said Robert Blendon, director of the Harvard Opinion Research Program, during a media call Wednesday. "These are very, very large numbers for that."
Aid elusive for most families
Blendon said he hoped the poll would bring clarity around how the billions of dollars in special appropriations from the federal and state governments as well as charitable funds are finding their way to help the most vulnerable groups affected by the epidemic. But to his surprise, he found few answers.
With "historic discrimination," Blendon said, "you would have thought this aid, at least we did, would have put some cushion on the problems that these families who are in the highest risk neighborhoods" are facing.
But the poll's findings show that substantial shares of Latino, Black and Native American households who are at high-risk of getting sick and dying from Covid-19 — have not been protected from financial problems and "have limited financial resources to weather long-term financial and health effects of the coronavirus outbreak."
While the pain from the pandemic crosses all races and ethnicities, experts say Latinos stand to endure a deep economic blow because of persistent income inequality, disparities in wealth and the large number of Latinos employed in service industries such as hotels, restaurants and retail stores — many of which have been forced to shut down.
Perez's husband had been back at work for about six weeks when he became infected with coronavirus. He's currently isolating at home while he recovers.
"We were just feeling like, 'Hey, we're starting to catch up on bills,'" said Perez. "But then these two weeks off that are mandatory is going to hurt us again."
Millions of Latinos and their families were left out of the assistance packages that Congress passed this year because those who apply must have a Social Security number. People who pay taxes with an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN) or those who live with someone who uses an ITIN to pay federal taxes also are excluded — which affects close to 16 million people nationwide who live in families with mixed immigration status, many of whom are Latino.
While the Perezes were among those families left out, she said charitable organizations stepped in to help pay for rent and utilities during the early days of the pandemic.
"Those were all one-time grants," Perez said. "We're on month six now of this pandemic, so those lifelines ran out. For the past like two months, there has been none of that anymore."
Applying for government-funded programs such as food stamps and public health insurance that Perez and her children could be eligible for as U.S. citizens is not an option under stringent measures implemented by the Trump administration. Her husband is in the process of seeking U.S. citizenship and applying and using any of these programs could deem him a “public charge." Officials use the term to define someone who they consider may be likely to need public assistance in the future, which under the Trump administration lessens a person's chances of obtaining legal status.
With less income, the family does what it can to stretch out each paycheck. Perez said she and her husband prioritize food expenses and paying their life insurance every month "because God forbid, something happens to one of us and we need to have that money available for our kids." But if money is tight, they may delay payments on their car insurance since "we're not really moving the car right now" or make minimum payments toward utilities or credit card bills.
More than half of Latino families live one crisis away from financial disaster and wouldn't be able to cover basic expenses for three months in the event of an economic burden, according to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a nonprofit targeting discrimination in lending, housing and business practices.
Almost 8-in-10 Latinos say Congress needs to pass another economic relief bill in addition to the $2 trillion economic assistance package approved in March, according to the Pew Research Center.
UnidosUS, the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization, recommends that Congress passes the HEROES Act and extend the $600 Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for workers. The organization is urging states to "improve their antiquated unemployment insurance systems" to remove barriers that Latino workers face when trying to access benefits.
"I have a lot of kids I may have to put through college. I have kids with potential, my two oldest are gifted students since third grade," Perez said. "I know my kids have bright futures. But if I'm not financially OK to support those life goals that they have, then what am I even here for?"