Last week, San Diego airport bartender Anita Burbage got the call she’d been waiting months to hear – that it was time to go back to work.
Burbage, 56, who came to the United States in 1991 from her native Philippines, didn’t mind that she’d be instead working as a server, and for just two days a week. After spending most of the past year unemployed, the Chula Vista, California, resident was grateful to be working again.
She and her hospitality worker colleagues have survived the year in part because of regular Zoom chats organized by their union in which they share their fears: That they won’t be able to make rent. That they’ll get COVID. Or for her fellow Filipino colleagues, that they’ll be assaulted – simply because they’re Asian.
“I’m scared for them,” Burbage said, tears erupting as she recalled those online exchanges. “These are people I’ve worked with for years. I told everybody, ‘Just hang in there. We will have the vaccine soon, and we will go back to work.’”
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are grappling with the nation’s highest rates of long-term unemployment more than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered hotels, restaurants, shopping centers, beauty salons and other sectors of the economy. Even as uncharacteristically high unemployment levels driven by the economic shutdown have returned to near pre-pandemic levels, many Asian Americans are unsure when they will be able to return to work.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 48% of the Asian community’s estimated 615,000 unemployed had been without work for six months-plus through the first quarter of this year. The figure surpassed the portion of long-term unemployed among jobless workers in the Black population (43%), white population (39%) and Hispanic population (39%).
Experts said the community’s lingering long-term unemployment levels reflect the slow comeback of low-wage industries populated by disproportionate numbers of Asian and Pacific Islander workers with low education. And the figure doesn’t include those who haven’t applied for unemployment benefits because of language or cultural barriers.
The situation has been exacerbated by an ongoing pandemic and an accompanying surge in anti-Asian sentiment nationwide. In San Francisco, Asians last fall accounted for nearly 40% of COVID deaths despite comprising just 12% of all positive cases.
More than seven in 10 Asians in the United States are foreign-born, and many are recent immigrants or refugees who settled in high-cost housing markets and states hard hit by the pandemic. Nearly a third of the nation’s Asian population lives in California, with other significant populations in New Jersey, Illinois, Hawaii and Washington state.
“We did see that the pandemic had a profound effect on those with a high-school education or less,” said Melany De La Cruz-Viesca, associate director of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Asian American Studies Center, noting that 83% of California’s Asians in that category had filed unemployment claims as of last summer, compared to 37% of the rest of the workforce.
Asian Americans without some higher education have also found it harder to regain footing, De La Cruz-Viesca said, even as Asian American unemployment has dipped from a pandemic high of nearly 15% last spring to just above 5% in February.
“The more educated tier you’re in, the more likely you are to rebound,” she said. “But if you’re a nail salon worker, you have a limited social network, and you’re probably going to sit it out until they call you back.”
As the virus started to spread across the United States last spring, jobs driven by person-to-person contact disappeared, many of them held by Asian workers in areas such as retail, hospitality and leisure, and personal services such as salons or elderly care.
“They’re serving your food, they’re doing your nails and they’re caring for your children and your elderly,” said Sung Jeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, a Chicago-based nonprofit that aims to empower Asian American and Pacific Islander women. “There are Asians in these jobs that people don’t often think about.”
Within those sectors, Asians accounted for one in four employees nationwide, according to a report compiled by economics professor Donald Mar of San Francisco State University and urban planning scholar Paul Ong, director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“These industries have been very slow to recover,” said Mar, the study’s co-author. “Asian Americans are also concentrated in a small number of states, and some of these states implemented shelter-in-place restrictions ahead of the rest of the nation. So Asian Americans were more likely to be unemployed sooner during the pandemic.”
More than 233,000 Asian small businesses closed between January and March 2020, Mar estimated; many were hit even before shutdowns went into effect, losing business as customers wary of Asian links to the spreading virus shied away.
For Asians, toll of long-term joblessness more than financial
For those long unemployed, the situation has taken a toll not just financially, but mentally.
In Seattle, a hotline set up for unemployed workers by hospitality union Unite Here to help people find food banks and relief funds soon became much more.
“Folks have called the hotline just to talk to another human, because they’re isolated,” said Unite Here community organizer Eunice How, Seattle chapter president of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance. “Some call with a mental health crisis, and they’re crying and don’t know where else to turn. It’s really heartbreaking.”
Most of the local union’s workers remain unemployed, and the organization tries to keep spirits lifted with regular phone calls, texts and Zoom chats. About 30% of downtown Seattle hotel workers are Asians and Pacific Islanders, How estimated.
“Our union has been really devastated by the pandemic,” she said. “And we will be one of the last industries to recover, because our industry relies on folks gathering and traveling. It can’t be remote; you have to go in physically and work, so there’s no work-from-home.”
That’s what’s been so difficult for San Diego’s Burbage and her co-workers. And given the city’s high cost of living, she said, her older colleagues especially feel vulnerable, afraid their jobs will disappear before they return, that they’re too old to find other work. Some have applied for jobs at big-box stores without any luck.
“They’re worried they’re going to be thrown out of their apartments,” said Burbage, who considers herself one of the lucky ones because she has an employed spouse.Most of them room together, she said, because they can’t afford to live by themselves.
On top of that, they’re worried about getting the virus, as well as confronting violence as a wave of anti-Asian attacks continues around the country: On Saturday, a 64-year-old woman was fatally stabbed in Riverside, California, and while police said it was not a hate crime, the killing has stoked further fearsof anti-Asian violence.
San Francisco-based Stop AAPI Hate, which tracks discrimination and xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, tallied nearly 3,800 anti-Asian incident reports from March 2020 through February.
Because many of her older colleagues don’t drive and must get around by bus, Burbage and several others have been volunteering to deliver them union-procured food donations in San Diego.
“A lot of my Filipino co-workers are so depressed, and they’re scared to go out with what’s happening in the Asian community,” Burbage said. “I feel sorry for them. They’re worried about the virus. They’re worried about getting hurt.”
Asian women hit hardest by unemployment
Alexandra Suh, executive director of the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance in Los Angeles, said it’s Asian women in low-income jobs who are feeling the brunt of continuing joblessness.
“The recovery we’ve seen in Asian communities has been on par with other groups among the highly educated and those were higher wages,” Suh said. “Where we see a huge discrepancy is among the lower-income and lower educated, who only have access to the lowest wage jobs and have seen the least job recovery. So it’s an even worse situation than the statistics suggest – and especially for Asian American women.”
In December 2020, the economy lost 140,000 jobs – all of them women’s jobs, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
“Many times Asian women have an especially high burden of domestic work and childcare responsibilities in families, and with all the children at home it’s just been harder,” Suh said. “They also have more involvement with eldercare. There’s so many pressures with the pandemic.”
What has made the Asian community so vulnerable to unemployment, she said, is the manner in which Asians in the United States have been racialized, steered toward jobs and industries whose tasks are historically seen as “women’s work” – cooking, laundries and domestic work, nursing and personal care. Those jobs are both devalued and underpaid, she said.
“When we have a pandemic that has put incredible pressure on society,” Suh said, “who gets it the hardest? It’s women, people of color and people in low-wage jobs.”
That pressure can have reverberations even beyond those who are laid off. Choimorrow, of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, said one young woman she knows in Chicago had just earned her bachelor’s degree when the pandemic hit and was thrust into a breadwinner role when her undocumented parents lost their food service industry jobs in the ensuing shutdown.
“Suddenly, she was responsible for the family’s mortgage,” Choimorrow said. “That’s a huge responsibility for a 22-year-old just out of college.”
It’s not just those with limited education who are jobless. Yan Pang, a 31-year-old Chinese-born university music instructor and nonprofit organization employee in St. Paul, Minnesota, found herself laid off from both jobs as school enrollment plummeted and the organization’s funds dried up in the pandemic.
Pang, who came to the United States in 2012 and earned her doctorate in music at the University of Minnesota, said it’s been hard not to get discouraged.
“People keep telling me, ‘Your time will come,’ and I tell myself to stay hopeful,” Pang said. “But you need to live – to buy food and drink, to have respect in the industry, and part of that is income. Without that, how long can I keep confident?”
For the last 10 months, she’s found herself out of regular work, either passed over for job opportunities or locked out by university hiring freezes. She worries she may be a casualty of the racist “model minority” stereotype that infers that Asian Americans are successful and don’t need a break.
“I feel like I’m not vulnerable enough to get the extra help, but not privileged enough to not worry about it,” Pang said. “So I’m ‘invisibilized.’ ”
At the same time, Pang has experienced anti-Asian harassment walking on the street, taunted with Asian-sounding names or language or told, “Go back to China. Why are you here?” And an uncharacteristically unfriendly customs officer, she said, once told her, “You’re lucky we don’t have enough money to deport you.”
Pang said she was also ridiculed for wearing a mask early in the pandemic and for urging others to do the same. The pressure was so great that she often removed her mask in public places to avoid being bullied, she said.
The money she gets from unemployment is just enough to get by. Sometimes, she finds donated canned food in the lobby of the artists’ loft where she lives in St. Paul.
“I’ve started to eat potatoes because that’s the cheapest,” she said.
After leaving her native China for better opportunity, Pang said the experience has been vexing.
“I spent nine years in America to get a doctorate education,” she said. “And here’s what I get.”
Recent Asian immigrants face range of hurdles in finding jobs
Language and cultural barriers also play into why many Asian-owned businesses and Asian workers have had a hard time rebounding, advocates say.
Eddie Ahn, executive director of Brightline Defense Project, an environmental justice agency in San Francisco, said many immigrants lack networks beyond their work community and struggle with job-seeking strategies commonplace in the United States, like resume-building workshops or online meetings.
“They don’t have necessary resources to just dust off the resume and go find another job,” Ahn said.
In Seattle, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance chapter president How said the local hospitality union partnered with the national labor alliance to offer unemployed workers with limited English skills assistance in navigating unemployment jargon and has helped them claim more than $500,000 in benefits that would have otherwise gone unused.
“Many people didn’t have access to a computer, or if they did it wasn’t in their language,” How said. “In addition to not being in their language, it’s in technical jargon not easily understood by a layperson. And if you don’t have a computer, how do you upload a picture of your ID? So we help with that.”
Some people are so put off by the unfamiliar process of applying for unemployment that they opt to rely on community resources instead, said Mei Li, culture and community director for Houston’s Chinese Community Center.
“With Asians, especially Chinese Asians, if you’re unemployed you just find a way to get through it,” Li said. “They tend to have a huge internal network and would rather not file for unemployment help or go through employment facilities.”
For small businesses, even as federal assistance was made available, some Asian owners were unaware of the help or too late to apply.
“Some of these businesses are not going to come back,” said Marlene Kim, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. “When programs first started for businesses to get loans, many Asians didn’t take advantage of it because it wasn’t in their language. And banks didn’t reach out to them, so they couldn’t participate, and they went under.”
Kim said the ongoing long-term unemployment rate among Asians is markedly higher than in previous recessions, suggesting that perhaps racial biases are playing a role.
“Even if you account for geography, education and people being foreign-born, it really doesn’t explain the differences given the high rate we’re seeing,” she said.
‘I have never felt like this before’
In San Francisco’s Chinatown, shopkeepers worry that business lost early to fears of the virus may not come back, said Ahn, the San Francisco activist.
“Businesses are stressed,” he said, and the worry stretches from Chinatown to Japantown as business owners struggle to make rent. “One restaurant owner talked about cutting from 31 employees to four. There is genuine concern.”
Beloved Chinatown restaurant Sam Wo, a former mom-and-pop restaurant that opened in 1908, sliced its staff from 23 workers to just three as the pandemic hit, and owner David Ho assumed cooking responsibilities as the site pivoted to take-out service only.
A year later, most of the restaurant’s laid-off staffers have yet to return. While Sam Wo’s younger servers have largely moved on to other employment, the restaurant’s longtime older cooks and prep workers, who speak limited English, are still waiting for their comeback calls.
“We’re still not open for indoor dining,” said Steven Lee, the restaurant’s marketing consultant. “With people six feet apart, we could have maybe 10 people. We’re small, and Mr. Ho doesn’t think people are going to come.”
What the pandemic has laid bare, U-Mass economist Kim said, are the shortfalls of U.S. economic policies not significantly reconsidered since the Great Depression.
“That brought us many of the social programs we have today, such as unemployment insurance, welfare programs and the minimum wage,” Kim said. “It would be great if the country could undertake another re-thinking and re-evaluation of what social programs are needed for families, because people need help.”
In San Diego, Burbage was able to relax on Easter Sunday for the first time in a while knowing that she was back to work. To celebrate, she cooked her family a barbecue chicken dish popular in her native Philippines.
“My mom always said, anywhere you go – if you know how to cook, you can survive,” she said.
Burbage has been fielding texts from desperate former co-workers asking whether other positions will open up. So far, she has no news to share.
“I’m worried about everybody,” she said. “I have never felt like this before.”