Asian Americans Go From Lowest Unemployment Rate To One Of Highest Asian Americans have traditionally enjoyed some of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. But the pandemic is taking a heavy toll - and Trump's blaming China isn't helping.
NPR logo

'Overlooked': Asian American Jobless Rate Surges But Few Take Notice

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/918834644/919006765" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Overlooked': Asian American Jobless Rate Surges But Few Take Notice

'Overlooked': Asian American Jobless Rate Surges But Few Take Notice

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/918834644/919006765" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Asian American workers have gone from having the lowest unemployment rate in the country to one of the highest. From Vietnamese nail salons to Cambodian doughnut shops, Asian-owned businesses have struggled during this pandemic. Here's NPR's Scott Horsley.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Jerry Raburn was excited last October when he landed a job with a mortgage servicing company in Southern California. It was a step up from his old job as a food delivery driver. But six months later, the pandemic hit.

JERRY RABURN: The business decreased dramatically, and based on seniority, I was let go.

HORSLEY: Raburn, who came to the U.S. from Thailand when he was 8 years old, now shares a single room with his mom, brother and sister in another family's house.

RABURN: Everything just went downhill. And I don't have a job right now. I'm still unemployed, unfortunately, and I've been looking.

HORSLEY: David Canlas also lost work when the pandemic struck. Canlas, who's from the Philippines, had been consulting for software startups.

DAVID CANLAS: Right now, nobody has startup capital. Nobody has the budget to go hire consultants. Nobody even feels comfortable for me to come into their office.

HORSLEY: The spike in Asian American unemployment stands out, even during the widespread misery of the pandemic. Asian Americans usually enjoy a lower jobless rate than any other racial or ethnic group. But at 10.7% in August, the Asian American unemployment rate was higher than that of whites or Latinos. Economist Marlene Kim of the University of Massachusetts Boston laments that doesn't get much notice.

MARLENE KIM: Asian Americans are absolutely overlooked. People have the sense that Asians are fine, that they're a model minority, that they have good jobs and are doing OK.

HORSLEY: Geography explains some of the newfound challenges. Asian Americans are concentrated in places like New York and California, where the virus has taken a heavy toll.

Occupation also plays a role. Don Mar of San Francisco State University says nearly a quarter of the Asian American workforce is employed in industries like restaurants, retail and personal services such as nail salons.

DONALD MAR: Those industries have been hard hit by the pandemic, and they traditionally employ many Asian Americans.

HORSLEY: Asian Americans say President Trump hasn't helped with his provocative labeling of what he calls the Chinese virus. Paul Ong of UCLA says Chinatown in Los Angeles suffered an earlier and deeper drop in foot and vehicle traffic than the city's other commercial neighborhoods.

PAUL ONG: People are avoiding these areas in part because of this myth that somehow Asian Americans are tied in with the spread of the coronavirus. Certainly, that is untrue and unfair. But there's no question it gets reflected in the impact on the ethnic economy.

HORSLEY: That can be a real problem for Asian Americans who are new to the country or have limited English skills. In ordinary times, the social and economic networks of an immigrant community can open doors and provide opportunity. But Ong says overreliance on those networks can be a trap during a crisis like the pandemic.

ONG: If you're in an ethnic sector and all of the restaurants are facing the same problem of being shut down, your opportunity to find work is very minimal, if not nonexistent.

HORSLEY: Jerry Raburn, the laid-off mortgage service worker, has grown frustrated with online job applications, but he keeps filling them out, while also attending community college. His younger brother recently landed a job at Home Depot. Raburn says events have tested but not yet beaten his immigrant family's hope for a brighter future.

RABURN: Life is hard in any country. And I believe America will get better.

HORSLEY: Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDIE JOACHIM'S "MULLED WINE")

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.