Asian-Americans hit hard by job losses in New York, raising questions of racial discrimination

Jodi Xu Klein

Asian-Americans have been hit hard by job loss in New York, the country’s epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, raising the question of possible racial bias during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the six weeks ending May 9, more than 195,000 self-identified Asians – Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, among others – have filed initial unemployment claims in the state, about 56 times the 3,500 during the same period last year, according to New York State Department of Labour data.

Graphic: Jodi Xu Klein

The jump was by far the biggest percentage increase compared with any other racial group. In comparison, jobless claims filed by Hispanic and Latino workers jumped 16 times, white workers 15 times and black workers 11 times in the same period. Overall, they went up 16 times for the total population of 19 million residents in the state.

“What’s different about this crisis is it really hit leisure, hospitality and retail establishments hard,” said Erica Groshen, a visiting senior scholar at Cornell University’s ILR School, which focuses on work and labour issues.

“These industries employ people without high school degrees. New York City has a very high concentration of recent Asian-American immigrants, with a higher proportion than the national average that do not have college degrees and worked in those industries,” said Groshen, who was formerly commissioner of the US Bureau of Labour Statistics.

The Covid-19 pandemic ratcheted up in the US in early March. More than 36 million Americans have filed for first-time unemployment claims in the eight weeks ended May 9. The jobless rate in April reached 14.7 per cent.

Asian Americans only accounted for about 9 per cent of the workforce in New York state, but their jobless claims made up 12.4 per cent of New York’s total filing. A year ago, the group made up just 3.7 per cent of claims.

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The percentage is high compared to other minority groups. African American workers, who make up about 18 per cent of the state’s population, accounted for 13.5 per cent of the new claims. Hispanic or Latino workers accounted for 19 per cent of workforce and 15.7 per cent in new jobless filings.

The outsize jump in a particular ethnic group begs the inevitable question: How much can the job losses for this group be attributed to racial discrimination versus economic causes?

A worker wearing a full body suit holds a stop sign in front of a food market as he manages the flow of the customers on Monday in the Jackson Heights neighbourhood of Queens in New York City. Photo: AFP

“While there are a number of reasons for this, the anti-Asian perspective is an important one,” said Angie Chung, an urban sociologist focusing on Asian-American studies at the University of Albany in New York. “The initial stereotype that Asians are all infected [by the virus] has caused people to avoid Asian-run businesses early on.”

New York did not report any coronavirus cases until March 1. But in February, many businesses in Chinatown started to complain about revenue declines, some with 50 to 70 per cent drops, according to the Asian-American Business Development Centre, a non-profit organisation promoting businesses for the ethnic group in New York since 1994.

“In January and February when things were not so bad here in the US yet, customers had stayed away from Chinese restaurants. That happened before the formal shutdown and that very much resulted in the slow businesses in the community,” centre president John Wang said.

Soon after Lunar New Year in late January, business at Nom Wah Tea Parlour in Manhattan’s Chinatown declined by nearly half. After weeks of diminishing revenue, the 100-year-old dim sum joint – the oldest restaurant in New York’s Manhattan Chinatown – shut its doors on March 15, a day before governor Andrew Cuomo banned all dine-in restaurant service, restricting the businesses to takeaway and delivery.

A New York Times article in early March about the first coronavirus case in the state used an image of Nom Wah as the lead photo.

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“People assumed that the case had to do with the restaurant, that the person who started coronavirus lived above us,” said Wilson Tang, owner of the restaurant, to Bon Appétit magazine in early March. “We emailed, texted, tweeted at multiple people at the Times to take the photo down. It’s gone now, but if you search ‘Nom Wah’ and ‘coronavirus,’ that photo still comes up. That hurts my business.”

The Asian-American population has been the fastest growing ethnic group in the US in recent years. In 2017, a record 20 million Asian-Americans lived in the US with their roots traced back to more than 20 countries in East and Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, according to Pew Research Centre.

The group historically has a lower unemployment rate than the national average, including during the 2008 financial crisis, according to the US Census Bureau. They make up more than one-third of the nation’s software and computer hardware engineers and a quarter of its medical scientists, according to 2019 census data.

But at the other end of the spectrum, six out of every 10 workers employed by nail salons and other personal care shops are Asians. The top locations that employ such workers are Flushing, Murray Hill and Whitestone, all in New York.

After the pandemic, Chinatown in New York will look very different, AABDC president John Wang says. Photo: DPA

“It’s a highly bifurcated workforce. There are these highly professional Asians in large corporations, but there is a huge population that are working long hours earning minimum wages,” said Chung of the University of Albany. “In Chinatown, a lot of the workers are very underpaid and they have little resources. When the businesses go down, they go down with them.”

Then there is the group of residents that are undocumented. In New York state alone, more than 250,000 Asian-Americans residents live there without legal status.

“Undocumented workers are losing their jobs but unemployment data doesn’t even cover that,” said Chung. “That makes the job problem even bigger.”

One possible reason that Hispanic or Latino workers – which also have a large group of illegal residents – aren’t as disproportionately affected is that “hospitals in the epicentre of the outbreak have not been laying staff off,” Groshen said. “Certainly hospital jobs have been very busy.”

Erica Groshen, visiting senior scholar at Cornell University, says New York City has a very high concentration of recent Asian-American immigrants. Photo: Cornell University

Wang said he was not surprised about Asian-Americans losing jobs. “I am surprised about the disproportionate number of Asian people losing their jobs. That reminded me of the similar situation when Sars hit in 2002,” he said, referring to severe acute respiratory syndrome.

During that 2002 epidemic which began in Guangdong, China, “similar things happened that caused a lot of problems in Chinatown” because of the anti-Asian sentiment, Wang said.

The association invited elected officials, including the then-president Bill Clinton, to come to Chinatown to ease people’s anxiety. “Now with all this anti-Asian sentiment started by Trump, this time it will get worse, not better,” Wang said.

“Chinatown in Manhattan has been under pressure for years,” he added. “Because of the great downtown location it occupies, the area has been contracting because of the new real estate developments. The pandemic has made the situation even worse. After the crisis, Chinatown is going to look very different and that new picture isn’t pretty.”

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