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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Maricruz Juarez earns $15 an hour teaching parenting classes. With a high school education, Juarez is better educated than many of her immigrant peers.

Mariela Serrato is feeling the impact of the chilled economy.

She's been out of work for a couple of months since she was laid off from her job packing candy, earning $10.50 an hour — roughly $420 a week.

Her family is surviving off savings and her husband's $14-an-hour construction job. For now, the Mexico native is staying at home, caring for her two children, ages 8 and 10, and searching for work — hoping to make at least $10 an hour, "but you know how the economy is," she said grimly.

Overall, Hispanic women who work full time earn a median weekly salary of just $460 a week, according to a recent Pew Hispanic Center analysis of Current Population Survey data. That compares with $615 for non-Hispanic women.

Hispanic women born in the U.S. fared better than Hispanic immigrants, making $540 a week compared with $400 for immigrants, according to the Pew data. Mexican immigrants made the least, with median earnings of only $368 a week. That's just 60 cents for every dollar earned by a non-Hispanic woman.

However, Hispanic women do earn nearly 90 cents for every dollar earned by Hispanic men, according to the Pew data. That's less of a wage gap than the 77 cents non-Hispanic women earn for ever dollar earned by non-Hispanic men.

Olga Vives, executive vice president of the National Organization for Women, says immigrants' wages are largely impacted by three factors: their legal status, education level and language barrier.

"Most immigrants come to this country due to economic problems in their own country. They cannot survive there," Vives said. "They are willing to do anything that will bring them some sustenance."

Nearly half of Hispanic immigrant women have no high school diploma, according to the Pew Hispanic Center report, "Hispanic Women in the United States." Seven in 10 immigrant Hispanic women said they either didn't speak English at home or didn't speak English very well, the report said.

For women with little education and an inability to speak English, that typically means low-wage service or domestic jobs. Many of these jobs don't offer benefits.

And Elena Bensor of the Utah Labor Commission says Hispanic women, particularly the undocumented, are less likely to report being victims of unscrupulous employers. However, even legal immigrants may be the target of on-the-job discrimination because of the assumption they're undocumented.

That's because some employers threaten to turn workers in to immigration authorities for deportation if they report unpaid wages or sexual harassment, she said.

"One challenge in dealing with immigrant populations is that they do not want to create waves," Bensor said. "There's a reluctancy on their part to actually pursue and file complaints. They want to stay under the radar."

Hispanics, particularly women, are highly concentrated in service occupations, such as food preparation, cleaning and maintenance, according to an analysis of census data by Pam Perlich, research economist at the University of Utah. However, when it comes to construction, Hispanic men are much more likely to be on the job, the analysis shows.

While Hispanic men and women aren't much different when it comes to education levels, men are more likely to work in higher paying segments of the blue collar occupations, adds Rakesh Kochar, the Pew Hispanic Center's associate research director.

For example, carpenters made a median $19.84 and construction laborers made $14.88, according to May 2007 national wage data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Maids and housekeepers, meanwhile, earned a median $8.82 an hour.

"All those categories of work traditionally are at the low end of the scale because of the nature of the business; less skill is required," said Vives of NOW. "Employers are not looking for skill, they are looking for labor that these women offer at any pay for the most part. They are desperately wanting to work to make a living here and help their families at home."

There tends to be, among at least some immigrant Hispanic couples, disagreement over whether the women should earn as much money as men.

Maurcio Carmona, originally from Mexico City, is the bread-winner in his family. He works for a carpet-cleaning company while his wife, Rosa Carmona, stays at home with the three children.

"If the guy makes more money, that's good because then he can support the family," he said.

But Rosa disagrees. She formerly worked as a certified nursing assistant, making $9 an hour before quitting when her last baby was born. She remembers a male colleague earned $2 more an hour than her, with just six months more experience.

"I think it's just discrimination," she said, noting that in her view women are shut out of high-paying jobs.

"We can do construction jobs," she said. "They just don't let us."

The Utah census data show more than 60 percent of Hispanic men worked in construction, extraction or maintenance, compared with only roughly 2 percent of women.

While women have made some headway in construction, the field is still largely dominated by men, said Vives, adding women may be denied job opportunities simply because of their gender.

"There is a bias for any woman in construction," Vives said. "It is traditionally a man's job, and traditionally it is viewed as such."

Warren Ferrill, author of "Why Men Earn More," sees it differently. He says it's difficult to track what low-wage earners actually make because many may work, at least in part, for cash.

"The rule of thumb in working-class jobs is the more people can do it, the less it will pay," he said. "Almost anybody can clean a house, as opposed to, say, build a house."

Men, he said, are much more likely to be hired for construction jobs — not because of discrimination — but because of the skill and, often, danger involved. He adds that women tend to work fewer hours than men, choosing jobs that allow more flexibility for family time.

He points out there are some areas where women earn more. For example, he said, women helpers in the construction field earn 124 percent of what men make.

However, whether perceived or real, many Hispanic women feel there is on-the-job wage discrimination based solely on their gender.

"Sometimes, even if the woman has the same skills as a man, a manager will give the women less money," said Dores Nuila, a mother of nine children. "There's a lot of sexism."

Nuila, who quit high school, actually earns $3 more an hour than her boyfriend, at her $13-an-hour customer service job. Throughout the years, though, there have been times when her boyfriend was the primary income-earner.

"In my case, I make more," she said. "But I think it's really unusual in the world."

Some Hispanic immigrant women fare better than others and are optimistic about their own future as well as their children's. Maricruz Juarez, 32, of Kearns is proud that her twin 12-year-old daughters are already thinking about college. The native of Acapulco, Mexico, hopes her youngest daughter will also have that mind-set.

Juarez earns $15 an hour teaching parenting classes in Spanish, and her husband makes roughly $700 a week at his construction job. The job is a step up for Juarez.

"I have had a lot of jobs before this one," she said. "I used to work at Jordan Commons in the cleaning department."

With a high school education, Juarez is better educated than many of her immigrant peers, and being bilingual has boosted her career options. However, she'd like more training to be able to find a higher paying job.

Still, for now, she's content with her work.

"I definitely love my job," she said. "They're not just paying me. I'm also helping my community, my own Hispanic community to become better parents."


E-mail: dbulkeley@desnews.com; lhancock@desnews.com