State Corrects Underreporting of Unemployment in Hispanic Community

Jun 9, 2020

Virginia has been dramatically underreporting the number of Hispanic workers collecting unemployment benefits.

The corrected data shows the economic crisis has hit the Hispanic community particularly hard.

What's the percentage of people in Virginia collecting unemployment benefits who are Hispanic? The answer state officials were giving until recently was curious — less than one percent. 

“Our data was incorrect,”  admits Megan Healy, chief workforce development advisor for Governor Ralph Northam. After several inquiries for this report, she worked with a team of people to figure out why questions about race and ethnicity were mingled together in a way that jumbled the results.  “What was happening is somebody who was trying to get unemployment would answer those two questions. But when the output came through the system they combined ethnicity and race together.” 

When people are filing for unemployment, they are asked about their ethnicity, essentially are you Hispanic or not Hispanic? Then there’s a second question about race. Are you white, black, Asian, American Indian or Pacific Islander? Until recently, the number state officials were reporting as Hispanic was actually people who identified as Hispanic and chose not to answer the race question.  “Ethnicity is around a culture or nationality versus race which is what is presented genetically. So I think they’re two different things, and they need to be two different pie charts,”  Healy says.

Corrected data for Hispanic unemployment claims

Two different pie charts, one for race and separate one for ethnicity. The revised numbers show 10 percent of people collecting unemployment insurance in Virginia identify as Hispanic. That’s actually a bit higher than the Hispanic population in Virginia, which means that Hispanic workers are disproportionately represented.

Laura Goren at the Commonwealth Institute says the need is probably greater than that.  “Unfortunately, there’s likely also a number of Hispanic and Latino Virginians who have not filed for and may not qualify for unemployment insurance due to their immigration status, and those folks are not getting the same help from the system.” 

And as for the confusion between race and ethnicity? “Race is a constructed category," Goren says. "It’s something that human beings have come up with basically for political and economic purposes in order to justify systems of economic exploitation of black folks initially."

So are race and ethnicity really the same thing?  “That’s an interesting question. According to the Census Bureau no. They are different things,”  says Mark Hugo Lopez at the Pew Research Center.

He says confusion about race and ethnicity has led to problems collecting and presenting data. Like in the last Census, for example, in 2010 when 37 percent of people who said their ethnicity was Hispanic said their race was other, and they were given an opportunity to write-in what their race was. “Most of the time people wrote in something like, Hispanic or Latin American or Latino or Mexican. Those were actually the most common answers given in 2010. So the Census Bureau wanted to explore why such a large share of the Hispanic population, 37 percent, were indicating that their race was something other than white, black, Asian or Native American.”

The Census Bureau recommended ditching the two-part question that created problems for the Virginia Employment Commission, merging ethnicity and race while also allowing people to choose more than one. But that idea didn’t get very far.  “In fact when the Census Bureau was talking about changing this for 2020, many Hispanic-origin groups and many Hispanic civil-rights groups were pushing back against actually losing the Hispanic question,," Lopez says, "so there’s a little bit of politics behind having a separate question for this group.”

For now, race and ethnicity are two different things, separated into different pie charts and presented in separate categories that show Hispanic workers are being hit disproportionately by the economic crisis.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.