Asian Americans typically have the lowest unemployment rate of any ethnic group in the United States. But in this weak labor market, once they lose their jobs, they have an especially hard time reentering the labor force, data show.
In July, nearly half of all jobless Asian Americans in California had been out of work for 27 weeks or longer, compared with 40% of Latinos and 42% of whites, according to an analysis of data from the state Employment Development Department.
Experts said the strong family and cultural ties that bind Asian entrepreneurs and a largely foreign-born Asian workforce can be a liability during tough times; laid-off workers often aren’t sure where to turn for work outside their ethnic circles.
About 13% of the 37 million people who live in California are of Asian descent, according to 2009 census data. About two-thirds of them are first-generation immigrants, said Paul Ong, a UCLA professor who has served as an advisor to the census. Many of them work in businesses owned by Asians, many of whom typically cut employees’ hours as a first response to an economic downturn rather than let them go, Ong said. That explains in part why the California unemployment rate for Asians is relatively low, just 9.5% in July, compared with 17.1% for blacks, 14.9% for Latinos and 12.0% for whites.
But when these employers are forced to lay off staff, their workers often
encounter hurdles to new employment. About half of Asian immigrants have difficulty speaking English, Ong said. Cultural differences also can prevent some from understanding how to apply for jobs with employers outside their communities, he said.
“They are heavily reliant on employers from the same ethnic group, so if for some reason those jobs are no longer available, it is more challenging for those workers to find employment, given the language and cultural barriers they face,” said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center.
Shirley Tam, a recent widow, returned to the workforce after a long absence caring for her sick husband. But the 50-year-old is finding that entry-level jobs are scarce.
“I don’t have any more money,” said Tam, pulling out a bank statement that showed she had $54 left in her savings account. “I need a job. I just need a chance.”
She recently began attending college part time to get an accounting degree to improve her employment prospects.
Southern California’s Asian community is diverse and employed in all manner of industries. Still, Asians are heavily represented in some sectors that have been particularly hard hit by the economic downturn, including garment-making. The number of people employed in apparel manufacturing in the state has fallen 23% to 58,500 since 2007, according to the Employment Development Department.
Also, new federal regulations require employees to verify workers’ Social Security documentation. That has proved especially disruptive to businesses in the garment industry. Los Angeles clothing maker American Apparel Inc., for example, said in July that 1,600 of its employees were not authorized to work in the U.S.
Some employers are avoiding potential problems by not hiring immigrants, said Mark Masaoka, policy coordinator for the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council.
Asian American banks, which invested heavily in commercial real estate during the boom, have faltered during the downturn, said Sung Won Sohn, a Cal State Channel Islands professor and the former chief executive of the Korean American Hanmi Bank. Koreatown’s Mirae Bank was shut down by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and acquired by Wilshire State Bank, a Los Angeles company. Innovative Bank, based in Oakland, was acquired by Koreatown’s Center Bank.
And the Korean community has many small businesses in immigrant neighborhoods, which are probably affected by the retail slowdown, said Glenn Omatsu, a professor at Cal State Northridge. In addition, many Pacific Islanders work in the construction industry, which has lost 42% of its jobs in California — or 402,800 positions — since a February 2006 peak.
Some Asian Americans have computer engineering or software jobs that are vulnerable to outsourcing, said C.N. Le, director of the Asian American studies program at University of Massachusetts-Amherst. And a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment rippling through the country might also hurt Asian Americans’ chances of finding work.
“In times of recession, Americans are most likely to feel economically threatened by immigrants, and their prejudices, suspicions and tensions rise to the surface,” he said. “That can happen on a personal level or an institutional level.”
In the Asian American enclaves of El Monte and South El Monte, unemployment in July reached 15.5% and 15.1%, respectively. Garden Grove’s unemployment rate was 11.8%.
Rosemead resident Wesley Huang worked at Wells Fargo Bank for 11 years before losing his job three years ago. After a short stint with the U.S. Census Bureau, he’s now back to job hunting again, trying to find work as a teacher. He speaks four languages but says it’s tough to find work even with that skill.
“There are so many people competing for jobs,” he said.
The poor economy has some looking for alternatives. The U.S. military saw its highest proportion of Asian recruits in 2009. Almost one-fourth of all Army recruits in Los Angeles County last year were Asian American, although they make up only about 13% of the county’s population. And Asian Americans suffered the sharpest decline in homeownership in 2008, falling 1.24 percentage points, compared with a 0.4-percentage-point decline for whites, according to the American Community Survey.
That’s because many Asian American small-business owners relied on home loans to support their businesses and are now at risk of losing both their homes and their businesses, Masaoka said.
Accountant Teresa Tran has been out of work for two years, and her husband, who was in marketing, is also unemployed. They’re living on money they’ve been able to take out of their El Monte home. Tran now goes to a job center in El Monte at least once a week, often taking her kids along. “I go everywhere and don’t get a call back,” she said.
Bruce Cheun has a degree in sociology and experience in business administration. He spent the last year looking for work while taking care of his ailing mother. He doesn’t have a car and hasn’t yet found a job. The Hacienda Heights resident said he wished there were more resources for people like him.
“I don’t think things are turning around.”