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Minorities across the region are feeling the job crunch

Cameron Macht, regional analyst with the Minnesota Department of Economic Security, is pictured Wednesday at his desk in Willmar. Macht says 2008 saw a significant increase in unemployment claims filed by Latino and black workers across the region. The rate at which minorities are becoming unemployed is "much faster" than for the work force as a whole, he added. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- The region's minority workers are losing their jobs at a more rapid pace than the general work force.

There was a significant increase last year in unemployment claims filed by Latino and black workers, said Cameron Macht, regional analyst with the Minnesota Department of Economic Security.

Although minorities make up a relatively small proportion of the region's work force, the rate at which they're becoming unemployed is "much faster" than for the work force as a whole, he said.

"We've actually seen increases in pretty much every age group, so it's not just entry-level workers," he said.

In 2008, there were 7,156 white workers in Region 6 East who filed for unemployment insurance -- a 15 percent increase compared to 2007.

The region includes Kandiyohi, McLeod, Meeker and Renville counties.

But among blacks and African-Americans, the number of unemployment claims almost doubled, from 55 in 2007 to 106 last year.

Unemployment numbers also climbed among Latino and Hispanic workers, from 538 to 674. That's an increase of 25 percent between 2007 and 2008.

The figures only cover unemployed workers who sought unemployment insurance; actual numbers could be higher. Race and ethnicity were self-reported.

In Minnesota as a whole, the number of black and Latino workers who made initial unemployment claims in February was nearly double the number of those who filed for unemployment in February of 2008.

The statistics are deeply worrying to people like Lourdez Schwab, a personal banker at Heritage Bank who works with many of the bank's Latino customers.

"I know that I have had people come to me knowing they are going to lose their jobs. These are jobs they have had for years," she said.

Schwab, who also is on the board of directors of the Multicultural Market of Willmar, said she's especially concerned that minority workers and entrepreneurs could lose the economic ground they've gained.

Recent immigrants, even if they arrive with a professional background, often are further hampered by a lack of English-language skills, she said.

"When there's a language barrier, you feel like there's no hope," she said.

There are some bright spots. The Southwest Initiative Foundation has begun offering evening seminars in Spanish to help encourage and develop entrepreneurship among the region's Hispanic and Latino population.

The multicultural market also recently received a grant from the Northwest Area Foundation to build a community kitchen in downtown Willmar, a project that could become a nucleus for future business development.

It will be critical to sustain this momentum, Schwab said. "You lose money when you start a business, so it's important that they keep their job. It's definitely a fear for many."