Unemployment claims from Asian Americans have spiked 6,900% in New York. Here’s why

Article Source: CNN
Original Post Date: 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 170 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.

Truman Lam, manager of Jing Fong Restaurant in Manhattan's Chinatown, pictured in February. (Jorge Corona / New York University)
Truman Lam, manager of Jing Fong Restaurant in Manhattan’s Chinatown, pictured in February. (Jorge Corona / New York University)

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.

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.

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