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Asian American New Yorkers experienced highest surge in unemployment during pandemic

The results "point to the precariousness of many Asian low-income workers and the vulnerability revealed by the Covid shutdown," said Howard Shih of the Asian American Federation.
Patrons eat at outdoor tables in Manhattan's Chinatown on Aug. 11.
Patrons eat at outdoor tables in Manhattan's Chinatown on Aug. 11.Anthony Behar / Sipa USA via AP

A Bangladeshi American New Yorker says she was laid off from her steady job at a Hudson News newsstand during the coronavirus pandemic. Her husband, who's undocumented and spent years working in restaurant kitchens, is also unable to work because of several serious medical issues but can't receive unemployment benefits because of his immigration status.

The woman, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, has been left to care for her family of four with her unemployment checks while confronting medical problems of her own and applying for job after job, she said.

The pandemic has had severe economic consequences in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in New York City, recent research finds.

The Asian American Federation, a social services nonprofit, recently released a report looking into the impact the virus has had on unemployment in the community. It found that at the beginning of the pandemic in February, Asian Americans in New York City had a jobless rate of 3.4 percent. By May, the rate had surged to 25.6 percent, the largest increase among all major racial groups.

Howard Shih, research and policy director for the Asian American Federation, said the results "point to the precariousness of many Asian low-income workers and the vulnerability revealed by the Covid shutdown."

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The former newsstand worker said she is worried about the future and the uncertainty that lies ahead with the pandemic.

"I always fight with my life. But I cannot fight with the disease," she said. "I cannot fight with Covid-19."

With her children growing up, she fears being unable to pay for their school expenses.

"Everything is money," she said. "My little one is in seventh grade. Next year is the Specialized High School Test. I cannot give her any tutorial because of money."

She added: "I see my husband's situation. I see my situation. ... Now what should I do?"

The report, which also looked at the growth in state unemployment claims, as well as the impacts the pandemic has had on Asian American subgroups, found that Asian Americans filed at a rate two to five times faster in the weeks between the beginning of April and the end of May, compared to the statewide unemployment claims of the general population.

When looking at New York City, those in working-class industries, including personal and laundry services and apparel manufacturing, bore the brunt of the job losses, making up about 20 percent of the workforce. Because of the mandated closing of restaurants, those in food service endured were particularly heavily hit.

In a normal year, 1 in 10 Asian American workers were employed in restaurant and food services in New York City, and a fifth of Asian American workers who lived in poverty depended on food service jobs. More than 10,000 Asian Americans also worked in transit and ground passenger transportation, health and personal care stores, and traveler accommodation. The report said those industries all lost over 10 percent of the jobs compared to the same month last year.

Shih said the findings are noteworthy because before the pandemic, Asian Americans largely shunned public benefits. He said that in the past, lack of awareness or lack of language access made it difficult for those in the community to navigate the system. What's more, many feared that applying for benefits would negatively affect their immigration statuses or their ability to sponsor family immigration, Shih said. And to a lesser extent, people were deterred by the cultural stigmas tied to seeking help, he said.

The report also broke down data about different ethnicities and where they were hit hardest in the pandemic.

Chinese Americans in New York City have been particularly vulnerable since mid-March — when restaurants shut down or offered limited takeout, delivery services or outdoor dining — as many were employed in nonessential services as busboys, line cooks or wait staff.

More than half of Nepali Americans in the city were employed in industries that had significant job losses because of the pandemic and faced considerable economic harm. Many worked as taxi and limousine drivers in the transit and ground passenger transportation industry, which lost 42.7 percent of its jobs in May year over year.

Unlike many of the other groups, Filipino Americans were able to avoid many of the economic losses; however, many of them are essential workers, making them particularly vulnerable to the disease itself.

"With Filipino American workers being overrepresented in the health care industry relative to their share of the population, the community experienced a greater risk of exposure to the virus than the general population," the report said.

The serious economic impacts on Asian Americans can be felt across the country. A study from UCLA reported that since the start of the pandemic, 83 percent of the Asian American labor force with high school degrees or lower has filed unemployment insurance claims in California, the state with the highest population of Asian Americans. In comparison, 37 percent of the rest of the state's labor force with the same level of education has filed for benefits.

Researcher Paul Ong, who worked on the report, has said previously that discriminatory language around the virus is likely to have prompted people to abandon Asian American establishments.

"This is why racializing Covid-19 as 'the China virus' has profound societal repercussions. We have seen this in the increase in verbal and physical attacks on Asians and in material ways in terms of joblessness and business failures," he said.

The Asian American Federation report recommends that because the Asian American community is largely an immigrant population, with more than 70 percent being foreign-born, policymakers should improve language access and prioritize marginalized communities in workforce development efforts. And about 1 in 4 Asian Americans in New York City live in poverty, so researchers also recommend that policymakers ensure that all forms of financial assistance are accessible to those who need it, regardless of citizenship status.