The transition for Latino families from unemployment to work

Araceli Martínez Ortega | La Opinión (text)
Brian Watt | KPCC (audio)
Maya Sugarman | KPCC (photo)

This story is available in Spanish here.

David Williams, who works at Homeboy Industries, fills out paperwork to enroll in a seven-week construction course at Los Angeles Trade Tech College on Monday, April 1, 2015. The class is put on by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations in partnership with LATTC. Photo by Maya Sugarman for KPCC.

WATTS - Last September, Abigail Flores arrived heartsick at the WorkSource Center, a work placement agency in South Central Los Angeles. She had spent at least seven months unemployed, depending upon public assistance to support her three young children.

“What I encountered here was beautiful. They helped me in everything. The work that they found for me was at a Dollar Tree shop. Then the hours were decreased. Once again they found me another job in a hamburger restaurant where I made minimum wage,” said Flores, a resident of South Los Angeles and a 34-year-old single mother. Her children are 6, 7, and 14 years old.

At the same time that Flores returned to the labor force, and to be able to provide for her family, the WorkSource Center, located inside LA Trade Tech College at Vernon-Central, began to provide her with training in the hotel industry.

With these new skills, Abigail will be able to make a transition to full-time work with a better salary and benefits.

“In a few weeks, she will have a better paid job,” said Deborah Lemus, a coordinator at the WorkSource Center. “Honestly, she is very well prepared. She has a good resume, and with the training she is going to get a very good job.” Lemus added that in addition to the training courses, many of the unemployed people that come to the center are motivated to complete high school, and even go on to the university.

A closet inside Los Angeles Trade Tech College's Work Source Center has suits, dress shoes and ties for members to wear to job interviews. Photo by Maya Sugarman for KPCC.

At the WorkForce Center, they also teach the unemployed how to prepare themselves for a work interview, and how to dress for one. “We have clothes, shoes, ties that we lend for the interviews,” said Lemus.

The transition from unemployment to the workforce for Latinos in South LA has not been easy since the recession of 2009. Contributing to the challenges is that they live in a poor area with high rates of unemployment.

Indeed, the lack of employment was one of the powerful reasons that triggered the violent Watts protest 50 years ago, according to the McCone Report. According to the Department of Employment, in 2013 the rate of unemployment reached almost 20 percent in areas in the south of the city. For the city of Los Angeles.

The Watts protests occurred between August, 11 and 17 in 1965. They received the name Watts from the neighborhood in the south Los Angeles where they started. The balance of the rebellion was: 34 people dead, 1032 injured, 40,000 dollars in damaged property, and 3,952 people arrested, 500 of them minors.

The recommendations give in the McCone Report after the Watts riots, included the creation of skilled and semi-skilled jobs for unemployed African Americans, as well as workforce training.

“The unemployment has gotten slightly better, but we still have high rates,” said Carlos Vasquez, director of the WorkSource Center. “The place where there is the most employment right now is in the area of construction and hotels. There are many buildings that are being remodeled and they are constructing new ones. In the airport, they are renovating the terminals; and the hotel industry is experiencing an upturn,” he observed.

At the LATTC WorkSource Center, which opened last November, there are computers, telephones, faxes, and the assistance of specialists that help in searching for work.

Ever since she got a job, Abigael says that her life has gone through a tremendous change. “I don’t need welfare any more, which I never adjusted to. Now I take my kids out. And I see a successful future. I want to study computers,” she said.

Grace Flores receives training as a chef in the international kitchen of LATTC. Through this training, she would be able to apply for a job with a higher salary. Photo by Araceli Martínez for La Opinión.

ONE STEP TOWARD THE LABOR FORCE

At 54 years, Grace Flores is beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Since 2009 she has been without full-time work, and in a few weeks hopes to join the labor force.

“I worked as a drug, alcohol and domestic abuse counselor, but there were budget cuts and my job was eliminated. All of the jobs that I found after that were part-time and very far from my house. I was going to spend more in the journey than I was going to ear,” said Flores, a single mother with three children, two of who are adults and one is 15 years old.

This immigrant lived for two years off of the economic assistance that is provided to the unemployed, and after that she received welfare.

For Grace Flores, the six years that she experienced without work were very hard. “I made 17 dollars an hour. Suddenly you do not earn anything, and the jobs that they offered me were 10, 12 dollars an hour. It was really hard to go down to this level. The most difficult was to ask help from the government,” she remembered.

And then one day she was offered a two-year training in culinary arts at LA Trade Technical College. At the same time that she worked on her culinary arts courses in the mornings, Flores also would work in the school cafeteria every afternoon after leaving class. “This gave me with experience. I am almost done, and the with the help of the WorkSource Center, I am securing a position working inside LAX working in the kitchen in a restaurant in terminal 2,” she said. She added enthusiastically that in her new job she is going to receive benefits and the support of a union.

“I have lived with a lot of tension without a job, so to know that I will have one soon, that it is going to help me have a better life for myself and for my 15-year-old daughter, that is a great relieve. I am now a specialist in international cuisine,” she says happily.

Students take a math test on the first day of a seven-week construction class at Los Angeles Trade Tech College on Monday, April 6, 2015. The class is aimed toward veterans, women and at-risk youth. Photo by Maya Sugarman for KPCC.

50 YEARS LATER, A DRAMATIC ETHNIC SHIFT

Similar to the majority of the south of the city, Watts, the scene of civil disturbances in South Los Angeles, has become a neighborhood with a 70 percent Hispanic population, according to a 2010 Census.

The demographic change began between 1870 and 1980 when South Los Angeles became more than 80 percent African American, and nine percent Latino to 50.3 percent African American and 44 percent Latino. Even though the south of Los Angeles continues to be home to the largest African American community in the west of the country, in reality, Latinos are the largest ethnic group in the area at 60 percent. The phenomenon is the result of the arrival of Central American immigrants in search of cheap housing.

But the economic conditions are not very different than they were 50 years ago. Although there have been advances since the riots, the roots of the rebellion of 1965 remain such as high levels of unemployment, still beset the southern part of the city. The difference is that now those most affected are Latinos, immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala.”

There have been improvements, but we are still in the fight, and the number one problem in the South of Los Angeles remains the unemployment. The number two is the low level of education, and the third is the lack of housing,” Carlos Vásquez of the WorkSource said without a tremor of doubt.

This story also appeared in La Opinión and KPCC.