Asian Americans who lost their jobs during the pandemic have found it harder than most to get them back.
The 5.9% unemployment rate among the roughly 10 million-strong Asian workforce in December was below the national rate. But in the final three months of 2020, almost half of jobless Asians had been out of work for at least 27 weeks — a biggershare than White, Black or Hispanic Americans.
The reasons are largely economic and geographic. Many work in industries particularly vulnerable to business closures, and almost one-third of Asian Americans live in California, one of the states hit hardest by pandemic restrictions.
Ivy Nguyen, a nail technician in Santa Ana, California, has been unemployed since the salon where she worked closed in mid-March. When it reopened, she wasn’t among those asked to return.
Nguyen, who moved to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1980 and is in her late 50s, has received just $2,184 in unemployment benefits. Speaking by phone through a translator, she said she has relied on financial support from her children and stimulus payments.
Almost one in four Asian-American workers is employed in hospitality and leisure, retail, or other services such as salons and dry cleaners, according to a Julystudy of Covid-19’s impact on Asian employment. Those sectors are among the hardest hit by the pandemic.
“Asian Americans were hard-hit initially,” said Don Mar, co-author of the study and a professor emeritus of economics at San Francisco State University. The researchers estimated that there was a disproportionate decline in the number of Asian-owned small businesses over the first two months of the pandemic, compared with those owned by non-Hispanic Whites.
Asian Americans are diverse. More than half are foreign-born, and no single country of origin dominates, according to a Pew Research Centerreport.
On aggregate, the population has higher education and income levels than the U.S. as a whole. But it also includes many groups — such as refugees, or those with limited English-language skills — who are at greater risk of suffering lasting scars as a result of the pandemic slump.
In California, Asian-Americans made up 16% of the state’s labor force in February and filed 19% of initial unemployment claims in the first two-and-a-half months of the shutdown, according to Mar. In New York State they made up 9% of workers and 14% of claims by mid-April.
Many of the applicants needed help for linguistic reasons.Dung Nguyen (who’s not related to Ivy) at the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative estimates she’s helped as many as 300 people apply for government financial support during the pandemic. It involved hours of filling out forms or battling an overwhelmed and glitchy state computer system. One submission took 105 attempts.
“There’s a lot of confusion,” Nguyen said. “So folks just come to us.”
Asian immigrant workers often aren’t eligible for a lot of the social safety net, according to Howard Shih, director of research and policy at the Asian American Federation. He also says that aid programs generally weren’t designed with the Asian community in mind, citing the Paycheck Protection Program of loans for small companies as an example.
Many Asian businesses “were unable to get assistance because the translations of the forms that they had to fill out and the instructions came out way too late,” Shih said.
Some firms won’t survive the pandemic, putting their employees and owners in jeopardy.
Ivy Nguyen, who’s been a nail technician since 1986 and says she’s never really thought of doing anything else, is concerned about catching Covid if she goes back to work. But she’s also worried that opportunities will be hard to come by when the pandemic ends — because there’ll be so many unemployed nail-salon workers looking for a job.
— With assistance by Alexandre Tanzi, and Craig Torres
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