Beyond AAPI Equal Pay Day: Long Term Unemployment, Essential Work, and Racism During the Pandemic

by Corinne Kodama

What a difference a year makes. While last year I wrote about the importance of disaggregating data to better understand equity pay gaps for Asian American and Pacific Islander women, this year the pandemic has made clear the need for basic economic security amidst a public health and economic crisis. While equal pay is an ongoing issue, many Asian American women have been pushed out of the workforce altogether. Asian Americans have also been at greater risk of severe COVID-19 and are more likely to die from the virus.

All of this has been exacerbated by anti-Asian racism, which has risen dramatically during the pandemic and even more in recent weeks — the culmination of a year of scapegoating, stereotyping, and a lack of understanding of who Asian Americans are in relation to the pandemic. This perspective was promoted by the former president who frequently linked COVID-19 to China and blamed the pandemic on a whole group of people. Thus, anger and frustration around the pandemic has often been directed at those who look Asian, regardless of ethnic origin—many of whom are struggling to get through this crisis just like everyone else. As a result, Stop AAPI Hate reported a total of 3,795 reports of anti-Asian hate incidents across the U.S. in the last year, including 503 incidents from January and February 2021 alone (note these are also likely underreported). These have been disproportionately directed at Asian American women, such as the shooting in Atlanta on 3/16/21, who reported over twice as many hate incidents. Even in my small social circle, many of my Asian American friends have been at the receiving end of these racist incidents and public harassment (including directed at their children) while at the grocery store, the park, or just taking a walk outside.

The irony of this is that many of the essential workers on the frontlines fighting COVID-19 are Asian American, particularly Filipino nurses and healthcare workers, many of whom — a staggering percentage, in fact — are dying. A December report showed that thirty percent of nurses who have died during the pandemic are Filipina. Other studies have found that Asian Americans are contracting and dying of COVID-19 at overwhelmingly high rates, particularly when disaggregated across ethnic groups. Some of the reasons are similar to other communities of color: Asian Americans often are frontline essential workers, live in multigenerational households, and some ethnic groups have underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable.

Unfortunately, there has been little attention to this disparate impact on Asian Americans (women in particular) because we’re often left out of datasets or news stories, or both. Incomplete and aggregate data often obscures the true impact of the pandemic on this often overlooked and misunderstood population. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not publish seasonally adjusted data for Asian American women in its monthly jobs report. However, unadjusted numbers reveal a deeper recession and slower recovery for this group. Furthermore, Asian American jobless claims increased at a greater rate than any other racial group during the pandemic. In December, Asian American women had the highest rate of long-term (6 months+) unemployment of any group of women, at 44 percent! This may be due to the high percentage of Asian Americans working in sectors hit hardest by the pandemic, as almost one in four Asian Americans work in the hospitality and leisure, retail, and service industries where unemployment rates have been as high as 40 percent. These include many frontline, low-paid essential workers including nurses and health care aides, grocery and food service workers, janitors, taxi/rideshare drivers, and small business owners who have disproportionately lost business or closed altogether — such as Chinese restaurants, Korean dry cleaners, and Vietnamese nail salons. These are also areas of work where racism can have a huge influence on business, as the scapegoating and stereotyping mentioned previously may keep customers from patronizing Asian American establishments.

Family caregiving responsibilities, coupled with gender and cultural norms, may be another reason for the high long-term unemployment rates of Asian American women , particularly given that married Asian American women seem to be experiencing the greatest job loss. Asian American women often live in multigenerational households, are more likely to be married, and the secondary breadwinner. Thus, Asian American women may be having to leave the workforce to care for their children as many schools and daycare centers remain closed, coupled with the lack of widespread paid leave policies and protections. Even when schools are open, Asian American students are appearing to stay home at higher rates, compounded by fears of racist attacks.

So what can YOU do to address some of the economic and social issues facing Asian American women?

These steps can move us toward a more equitable and socially just economic recovery for not just Asian American women, but all working women, so that we can achieve not just pay equity, but also safety, security, and the ability for our communities to thrive.

WE relentlessly pursue equity for women in the workforce by effecting policy change, expanding access to education, & advocating for fair, inclusive workplaces.