Shannon Liao, CNN, May 1, 2020
Ten days before New York issued a stay-at-home order, Truman Lam, 35, was already contemplating whether to close his restaurant Jing Fong, an icon in Manhattan’s Chinatown. It was Tuesday, March 10. During the peak lunch hour, he went upstairs to count how many customers he still had.
Jing Fong’s dining room is massive; a destination for banquets and weddings, it can hold up to 794 people — and on weekends, there has historically been a long wait to get in for dim sum. But on that day, Lam counted just 36 guests.
Business had started to slow as early as January and was down 80%. All of the parties in March were canceled, too, he said.
“That day, I decided, you know what? Let’s just close for the rest of the weekdays,” Lam told CNN Business, adding that he was thinking about staying open on the typically busier weekends.
As long as the restaurant could cover workers’ wages each day, Lam felt it was still worth it to stay open. But “it became more and more obvious that we couldn’t even cover the payroll for that day,” Lam said.
Soon after, Lam made the final decision to furlough 310 staff members across two locations and encourage them to apply for unemployment benefits. He declined to say whether he has filed for benefits, too.
Across New York, businesses like Lam’s have shut down during the coronavirus pandemic and Asian American workers have filed for unemployment benefits at extraordinary rates. In the state, about 147,000 self-identified Asian workers have filed initial unemployment claims in the last four weeks alone, up from just 2,100 during the same period last year.
That’s a 6,900% increase — by far the largest percentage increase experienced by any one racial or ethnic group.
In contrast, claims were up 1,840% for white workers, 1,260% for black workers, and 2,100% for Hispanic and Latino workers in New York.
New York stands out from other states in that in early April, it started releasing detailed demographic breakdowns of unemployment claimants every week. Not surprisingly, claims are skyrocketing for every group in the state, reflecting the sharp economic downturn that nationwide has left 30 million Americans filing first-time unemployment claims since mid-March.
But even so, the increase for Asian Americans is an oddity: It’s so large, it’s disproportionate to the size of their labor force. Asian workers make up about 9% of New York state’s population and work force, but now account for 12.5% of initial claims over the last four weeks. A year ago, they made up just 3.7% of claims during the same time period.
For the other groups, claims are either roughly in line — or well below — the size of their populations. White workers, for example, make up 65% of New York’s labor force, but only 51% of recent claims.
What’s the cause? Academics and members of the community point to several potential factors ranging from xenophobia to Asian Americans working in industries hard hit by the pandemic, including food and services. Many Asian workers also say they began social distancing earlier in the crisis than others — a factor that led some to close down businesses even before official lockdowns.
Lam, for instance, believes the main reason his restaurant began to lose business starting in January is because of “Chinese people practicing social distancing early.” One regular customer told him that their parents hadn’t left the house in a month since January except to get coffee and the newspaper.
“Jing Fong was first established around 1978,” said Lam, who took over daily operations of the business after his father, uncle and grandfather. “And we’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Low unemployment rates never told the full story
For much of the last ten years, Asian workers have had the lowest unemployment rate and highest median household income of any racial or ethnic group in the US. Part of the reason is due to their higher education levels. All of those figures contribute to the common perception that Asian Americans are more economically successful than average and to the pernicious model minority myth about Asian Americans being polite, working hard and pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.
But studies have shown low unemployment rates and high household earnings obscure persistent disadvantages for Asian Americans, including workplace discrimination and increasing income inequality within the group.
Averages also hide the fact that Asian Americans — one of the fastest growing populations in the US — are a diverse population. Those who self-identify as Chinese, Indian or Filipino ancestry make up the three largest Asian groups in the US, but no one ethnicity makes up a majority. The same is true of Asian Americans in New York State, where smaller populations of Burmese, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis are also growing quickly.
Economically, Asian Americans are the most divided racial or ethnic group in the US, a Pew Research study found, with high-income Asian Americans in the 90th percentile earning 10.7 times as much as Asian Americans in the 10th percentile.
All of those underlying factors are at play now in New York’s data, as unemployment claims spike disproportionately for the Asian community.
Small numbers in 2019 meant a large spike for 2020
Another factor behind the large jump: Asian Americans filed very few claims last year, so that’s partly why their percentage gains were higher than any other group, said Christian Moser, assistant professor of economics at Columbia Business School. “The larger number… will come from the fact that we’ve started out with such a low level to begin with for Asian Americans,” he said.
The small base numbers in 2019 can be potentially explained in part by pride, said Ahyoung Kim, the small business project manager. And now, it’s possible Asian American people are rethinking that stance given the combination of racism and economic fallout they’ve experienced during the pandemic.
“I can’t speak for all Asian cultures, but at least in the Korean community, there has been a bit of shaming, in a cultural sense that you can’t really demand stuff from the government,” she said. “There’s a huge shift in the community. Those that are asking are now realizing, ‘I can take this money and we should take this money because there really is no choice.'”
Undocumented immigrants missing from the numbers
Even as unemployment claims have surged, the number almost surely undercounts the total of Asian Americans who are unemployed during the pandemic, as undocumented immigrants are ineligible to apply. About 238,000 undocumented Asian immigrants live in New York state, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. There’s no data on how many of them have lost jobs recently. Sora Lee, 23, who lives in Bayside, Queens, told CNN Business that her whole family is ineligible.
Both her parents are undocumented, while she and her sister worked jobs that were paid in cash. All four of them lost jobs recently, although her dad is unemployed due to an injury unrelated to coronavirus.
Her mom, who requested to remain anonymous because of her immigration status, is a nail technician who lost her job after her salon closed. “I would like to be working because of the money, but at the same time, it’s very dangerous because of the virus, so it was a good idea to close down,” she said in comments translated from Korean by her daughter.
Thanks to a babysitting gig, Lee does have some income right now, but she’s the only one in the family who does and her mother said she’s worried she won’t be able to pay her bills. Rent, electricity, cable, internet, car insurance and life insurance payments due soon total up to $2,600 and the family is leaning on credit cards and about $1,000 left in savings. She said she wished that undocumented immigrants could be eligible for some sort of relief.