Before the pandemic, Heena was working full time at a New York nail salon. The pay was modest, but it offered a semblance of stability. Heena, who asked to use a pseudonym, typically worked eight hours a day, four days a week, with hourly wages of about $11; on a typical day, she might have taken home $50 to $60 in tips.
“There was always a risk, even before COVID, because we work with such heavy-duty chemicals,” she told me through a translator. “On top of that, the struggle with managers—I wonder if maybe managers are the same everywhere. But that is also the type of pressure that makes it really hard for us on the job.”
In March, when nonessential businesses in New York City were ordered to close, the salon where Heena worked had to shut down, and she was unable to work for months. But reopening has also brought little comfort. As the salon has struggled to drum up business, Heena has seen her hours and pay slashed with little warning.
“The managers just reduced our hours,” she says. “They didn’t ask whether it would be okay.” Her hours can vary day to day, depending on how many clients come in. “It’s sort of at the wish of the manager, who tells us to just leave whenever things get slow,” she says.
Heena’s wages have increased to $13 per hour, but that hardly matters given that her work hours have been cut so drastically. On many days, she makes as little as $20 in tips. “I’m only bringing in maybe $300 a week, which is really nothing to support the family on,” she says. “My husband works at a store but he has a similar situation where sometimes he gets called in, sometimes he doesn’t. We do what we can. I have an older son who doesn’t live in New York, and he’s studying but also has a side job and tries to send us money as well.”
On top of her financial concerns, the fear of working amid a pandemic and exposing herself to the coronavirus hangs over Heena at all times. “I feel the pressure that they’re putting on us to do our job well, and there’s so much risk when we’re working, and it just doesn’t feel good,” she says. “I have my own stress, and I feel their stress as well. They give us masks and gloves and even shields, which is actually better than in other places, but that doesn’t really help with the fear that we have. But what to do? I have to work.”
As a Nepali immigrant, Heena belongs to a group of workers who have often been overlooked amid the economic fallout of the pandemic. A lot of coverage has highlighted the sweeping impact on working women, whose unemployment rates spiked in April when 3.6 million women left the labor force. The economy was slowly recovering from what many have called the first female recession—until 865,000 women dropped out of the workforce in September. Unemployment among Black and Latinx workers has also been markedly higher, reaching highs of 16.7% and 18.9%, respectively, during the spring. Those percentages have since fallen but remain worse than white unemployment rates.
But as a new surge of COVID-19 cases grips the country, another demographic continues to be especially vulnerable. Asian Americans, too, have suffered outsize job losses and financial instability since the pandemic hit. In August, the 10.7% unemployment rate among Asian Americans was even higher than that of Latinx workers. That figure has dropped in the months since, along with overall unemployment, but remains higher than white unemployment rates; since the pandemic hit, job recovery among white Americans seems to have outpaced that of Asian Americans.
Like Heena, many Asian Americans are clustered in and around cities, which were hit hardest during the first surge. In New York City, the unemployment rate for Asian Americans hit 25.6% in May, up from 3.4% just three months prior, according to a report by the Asian American Federation. Nepali Americans and Chinese Americans in the city who hold service jobs have been especially affected, while Filipino Americans who work in the healthcare industry have faced their own challenges due to exposure to the virus. And across the board, Asian Americans have felt the effects of the racism and discrimination stoked by President Donald Trump’s framing of COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus.”
The economic impact of the pandemic on Asian Americans is unusual because historically their unemployment rates have been very low—even lower than those of white Americans. In December 2019, when the overall unemployment rate was 3.5%, Asian American unemployment hovered at just 2.5%.
“It’s especially notable because among Asian Americans, the average unemployment rate was the lowest before the pandemic,” says Karthick Ramakrishnan, a public policy and political science professor at the University of California, Riverside, and the founder and director of AAPI Data. Even at the peak of the last recession, Asian American unemployment remained below that of Black and Latinx workers.
One reason the pandemic’s toll on Asian Americans demands more attention, Ramakrishnan says, is because it’s such a departure from the norm. But that’s also why it’s difficult to increase awareness of how the pandemic has affected Asian American communities. “Essentially, it’s a version of that model-minority framing,” he says. “Asians are better off than whites, so there’s nothing really to pay attention to here. They are not a struggling community of color.”
It’s true that collectively, Asian Americans are the most educated racial and ethnic group in the U.S. But there is no singular Asian American experience. “Those averages hide a lot of variation,” Ramakrishnan says. Even the term itself—first coined to help the community build political power—barely begins to capture the diversity of the group, which includes Americans who trace their origins to dozens of Asian countries.
Indian Americans, the most educated of the bunch, are much more likely to have at least a bachelor’s degree than Cambodian Americans, for example. Income, too, varies by racial and ethnic group. And of the 20 million Asian Americans in the U.S., more than 1.7 million are undocumented. Many Pacific Islanders in California are gig workers, according to a survey AAPI Data conducted last year in tandem with the Public Religion Research Institute. And Vietnamese Americans, among the six largest subgroups of Asian Americans, tend to be overrepresented in the service and personal care industries, which have been battered during the pandemic.
So while the most visible Asian Americans might have had the privilege of working from home during the pandemic, countless others have experienced the uncertainty and financial instability that Heena has, along with outright unemployment. “It’s important to not only look at the unemployment numbers, but also other indicators of economic struggle, even among those who are working,” Ramakrishnan says. And as coronavirus rates rise daily, there seems to be no end in sight for workers.
“I also understand, from a manager-employer side, that there’s no clients—so where are you getting money?” she says. “But now we’re in a situation where there’s not that much work, and I’m also fearful. I wish the government would understand that workers are in this situation. There needs to be some type of support, or some type of fund, to help people through this time. . . . We go home with our pockets empty, having put our lives on the line . . . and our families at risk.”