Asian Americans face coronavirus double whammy: Skyrocketing unemployment and discrimination

Gary Lin, a Chinese-American business owner in New York City, has been working through the coronavirus crisis to keep his ramen restaurant afloat. He is worried about getting sick and bringing the virus to his family, but has remained partially open for takeout services as rent and bills pile up.

On top of the financial struggles, Lin said he and his employees have also been facing harassment due to their Asian background and that business was already down as early as February.

“We did receive some phone calls, you know, I don’t know who is calling me just asking, ‘Can I order coronavirus?’ or something like that,” Lin told ABC News. He said one of his employees was even attacked while doing his laundry, “just because he’s Chinese.”

Hai Shian Peng, a Chinese-American business owner who operates two hot pot restaurants in New York City that have closed amid the pandemic, described a similar experience to Lin’s.

This report is part of “Pandemic – A Nation Divided,” ABC News’ special coverage of the heightened racial/ethnic and socioeconomic disparities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Tune into “Nightline” for a three-day series starting tonight, 12 a.m. ET on ABC.

Peng said that some of his employees were “attacked” and “yelled at” while taking the train home from work due to their Asian background.

He also said he and his son also experienced a confrontation in early March when they got “yelled at” while walking on the street in Chinatown at night and since then, they “have not stepped out at nighttime anymore.”

Lin and Peng’s experiences are not unique. Asian Americans are facing a range of threats and challenges during the coronavirus pandemic — getting the virus which has killed more than 90,000 in the U.S. alone, skyrocketing unemployment and struggling to survive financially and doing all of this while facing the prospect of being attacked or harassed because of COVID-19’s suspected origins in Wuhan, China.

Chinatowns and Asian American businesses across the country began to report drops in businesses as early as late January — with many pinning the decline to misplaced fears about the virus’ origin in China.

And in March, the FBI warned of a spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans, saying in a report that they made the assessment “based on the assumption that a portion of the U.S. public will associate COVID-19 with China and Asian American populations.”

Asian American unemployment rate skyrockets in New York

New York, where Lin and Peng work, has the second-largest population of people of Asian descent in the U.S. after California and has been the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the country.

California and Texas (the state with the third largest Asian population) do not break down their unemployment filings by race or ethnicity, but New York does — and the findings indicate staggeringly disproportionate suffering for Asian American workers.

New York state saw a 10,210% year-over-year increase of unemployment filings among Asian Americans (51,653 compared to 501 in 2019) — the highest of any racial group — for the week ending April 11. In that same week, jobless claims for black Americans spiked 1,927%, white unemployment filings jumped 2,904%, and Hispanic or Latino claims rose 3,222% in New York compared to the same week a year before.

Asians represented nearly 13% of New York state’s claims in that week despite being 9% of the state’s population, according to the Census.

Lin employs about 20 people, who are almost all Asian, and said “most of them” have filed for unemployment insurance, but he hopes to hire them all back when the business reopens.

“When we are ready to reopen, I think most people want to come back to work as people are calling and asking me when we can start working, but we don’t see the date yet at this moment,” Lin said.

New York’s pandemic statistics are shocking in part because nationally, Asian Americans have had among the lowest rates of unemployment in the U.S. — 2.1% in April 2019 — lower than white Americans at 2.9% at that point. In April 2020, the Asian American unemployment rate spiked to 14.3%, while the unemployment rate among white Americans rose to a lesser degree at 13.8%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As the pandemic raged on, Asian Americans consistently saw the highest percentage increases for New York’s jobless claims each week by large margins. According to New York state’s most recent data from the week ending May 9. Asian American unemployment filings were up 4,150% compared to the same week last year (22,526 compared to 530 in 2019). This was followed by claims from Latino/Hispanic workers (1,861% spike), black workers (1,151% uptick) and white workers (1,329% increase).

All told, 195,153 people of Asian descent have filed for unemployment in New York since April, compared to 3,489 in 2019 — a nearly 5,500% increase. Unemployment in the overall population in New York increased just over 1,500% during the same time period, according to the data.

Meanwhile, complaints of anti-Asian discrimination to the New York City Commission on Human Rights spiked 92% from February through April this year compared to the same time last year. The complaints reflected harassment or discriminatory incidents in employment, housing and places of public accommodation.

Moreover, while overall hate crimes declined in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same period a year ago, the New York Police Department said earlier this month that the city “is seeing an increase in hate and bias incidents targeting individuals of Asian descent in relation to coronavirus.” As of May 4, the NYPD has investigated fourteen “COVID-19/Asian-bias related hate crimes.” 

‘By calling it a Chinese disease, you are one step away from saying don’t hire Chinese people’

President Donald Trump has repeatedly referred to the insidious respiratory disease as the “Chinese virus” at news briefings and on Twitter, doubling down even in the face of critics who pointed out that diseases don’t carry nationalities and the World Health Organization specifically naming the disease COVID-19 to avoid regional or ethnic stigma.

Trump’s rhetoric has been echoed by other administration officials and politicians — from local leaders to House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, of California.

Peng called the impact of the rhetoric “terrible,” saying he never thought the incident that he and his son experienced would happen “because I am a citizen.”

“I think, unfortunately, it is too easy for some people to scapegoat and stigmatize in times of fear,” said Carmelyn Malalis, the commissioner of the New York City Commission on Human Rights and longtime advocate of employees’ rights in the workplace.

Malalis said she speculates that rhetoric made it so that “stigma immediately attached to Chinese and other Asian people and their communities,” resulting in a hit to their businesses.

Thomas Yu, the CEO of Asian Americans for Equality — a nonprofit based in NYC that Lin and Peng reached out to for assistance in obtaining economic relief — said that Asian American business owners are facing a “double whammy” amid the rising “xenophobia.”

“If you are a non-Asian business owner, I would say your predicament is hard enough, right? Your business is shutting down. But imagine you had to deal with the double whammy of thinking about, am I going to be a target of an assault or, you know, sort of overt racism,” Yu told ABC News.

Moreover, employers are “influenced by the same negative views that the labeling of this disease creates and facilitates,” Andre Perry, a fellow at the Brookings Institution whose research focuses on race and economic inclusion, told ABC News.

“By calling it a Chinese disease, you are one step away from saying don’t hire Chinese people,” he said, adding that because many Americans don’t understand nationality, ethnicity and race, the ramifications extend “to all people of Asian descent.”

“When President Trump continues to label this an Asian disease, it impacts the policy makers, it impacts the implementers, it impacts everyday dealings with folks,” Perry added. “You’ll see in a heartbeat folks who work diligently, who do everything they’re asked to do when it comes to achieving the American dream, who are American, be let go in a heartbeat.”

’I don’t think that business will recover’

Some advocates and business owners worry that the decline in business that Asian American enclaves experienced even before stay-at-home orders took effect could be an ominous sign of what is to come when restrictions ease and businesses are allowed to reopen, as they are doing in some states.

Lin said that business at his ramen shop, KyuRamen, and bubble tea stores started to drop in “the middle of February or the end of February” and it happened “a little bit by little bit.” Sales had fallen 10-20 % in February and by mid-March, business had already dropped by 70-80%, he said.

KyuRamen is located in a predominately Chinese American community in Flushing, Queens, and is open for takeout service (it is part of a chain with more than 125 locations around the world. T Baar, which Lin opened in New York in 2006, has about 20 franchised locations in the U.S. – from Maryland to Florida — that are mostly closed.

Peng, who owns two locations of Hou Yi Hot Pot in New York’s Chinatown and the East Village, said business dropped by more than half in January and February, prompting him to close one of his locations on Feb. 28, nearly a month before the state’s “PAUSE” order, shuttering restaurants except for takeout, went into effect.

Both Lin and Peng worry that even when New York City begins to reopen, which could happen as early as May 28 when the PAUSE order expires, business will continue to suffer.

“Even though we may reopen by the end of this month or whatever, I don’t think people are going to be coming out to eat or shopping,” Lin said. “I don’t think that business will recover just like before.”

Peng expressed concerns that people might not be willing “to step into Chinatown” and could continue to avoid Asian American neighborhoods, adding that without “foot traffic,” it’s difficult for restaurants and other businesses to remain afloat.

Elizabeth Yang, an attorney who serves on the board of the Los Angeles-based Asian Business Association, lives and works in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley, where there is a large Asian American population. She said that even weeks before stay at home orders took effect, the community “noticed a significant decrease in the number of customers that were frequenting all of the Chinese restaurants in the area.”

“So they think the virus comes from the Chinese people and then our president doesn’t help by calling the virus the ‘Chinese virus’, and other politicians are all calling it the ‘Chinese virus,’ so people who are ignorant think that oh, Chinese people have the virus,” Yang said, adding that “after the quarantine lifted, it’s going to be very similar.”

“A lot of Chinese restaurants are going to go out of business,” Yang predicted.

What help is available

Asian American business organizations and nonprofits across the country have been rallying to support their fellow business owners in the community who have been hit hard economically by COVID-19.

Through the Asian Business Association, Yang and her colleague James Hsieh have been hosting webinars and virtual training sessions during the pandemic to teach business owners how to shift some operations digitally.

Hsieh said that the digital marketing company he runs is busier than ever as business owners reached out for guidance amid the pandemic.

“We have seen an influx of questions and inquiries of how can we help them pivot their business to be more online focused … we’re trying to educate people out there [on] how they can leverage the online channel, the advertising channel, their websites, to get free traffic or just to find ways to increase exposure,” he said.

Yang added that “brick and mortar” businesses that are “not based online” have been especially hit hard and the learning curve is especially steep for older business owners who are not digitally savvy.

“They’re having a really hard time adjusting,” she said. “They’re basically trying to learn the technology as well as all the adjustments all at the same time, and it’s overwhelming when they’re struggling.”

Meanwhile, Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE) launched its own fund to provide loans to small businesses and the nonprofit has been working with business owners like Lin and Peng to help them apply for federal relief.

Both Lin and Peng received in-house loans from AAFE and received assistance from the Renaissance Economic Development Corp. in applying to the Payment Protection Program — the federally backed emergency loan program to help hard-hit small businesses.

As expenses mount, businesses remain shuttered and the incidents of xenophobia continue to impact the lives and livelihoods of Asians Americans during the crisis, Malalis of the New York City Commission on Human Rights said she wants to emphasize how important it is to report them, “regardless of whether or not they themselves personally want to avail a remedy.”

“The lingering anti-Asian fears that people will have after or during our emergence from COVID, that is rooted in deep-seated racism, deep-seated miseducation,” she said. “And it’s only by documenting this stuff during a time of crisis do we know what we have to then start really seriously addressing when we’re not in the time of crisis.”

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