Asian-Americans were bumped during the pandemic from a historical perch —having the lowest unemployment rate of any major ethnic group — but experts say it’s unclear why.
Some say it could be related to the types of businesses in which Asian-American workers are employed or their concentration in certain geographic areas. But discrimination, already a factor in a spate of high-profile attacks on community members in recent weeks, could not be ruled out.
Dean Baker, senior economist with the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research, said the jump in unemployment was more than statistical noise.
Typically, he said, Asian-American unemployment rates were usually a half to a full percentage point below those of white workers. But in the aftermath of the COVID-19–induced recession, Asian-American unemployment was above that of white workers for nine straight months in 2020, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
That did not happen in the last recession from 2007 to 2009. The biggest gap between the two rates was seen in June 2020, when Asian-American joblessness was 13.9% while white unemployment was 10.1%.
The group’s jobless rate has been falling, though, along with the overall rate, in recent months. In two of the last four months, it had resumed its status as lower than the white jobless rate.
But in March, the Asian-American rate jumped from 5.1% to 6%, putting it back above the white unemployment rate.
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh told reporters at the White House that he did not have an explanation for the March spike. “That number kind of jumped out,” Walsh said. “Everyone’s saying this something not right here.”
Baker said seeing the jobless rates of white and Asian-American workers returning to their usual relationships supported the idea Asian-Americans were more affected by the recession because they were more likely to be employed by businesses engaged in person-to-person services, like restaurants, that were hardest hit by the pandemic.
He warned, though, that there was not enough data to be certain. “I’m speculating that,” he said.
Keith Hall, a former commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and former head of the Congressional Budget Office, cited another possibility: differences in households. Multigenerational households may have required more caregiving during the pandemic, keeping some workers out of the labor market.
Both Baker and Hall said discrimination against Asian-American workers was also possible or could have contributed to the jobless rise but were wary of placing that blame without more data. “I’d say it can’t be determined. I’d have to look at other potential reasons before I determined that,” Hall said.
“Without more evidence, I’d be reluctant” to blame anti-Asian bias, Baker said. If it were the case, he said, the gap between the Asian and white jobless rates would still favor white workers, instead of resuming the historic pattern in recent months.
Another possibility is geographic concentration. A recent report by the liberal Economic Policy Institute found Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders saw the biggest increase of any group in state unemployment rates compared with white, Black and Hispanic workers from the first quarter of 2020 through the fourth quarter.
Asian-American unemployment rose by 4.6 percentage points in the states where EPI was able to estimate it, compared with 3.9 percentage points for Hispanic and Black workers and 2.3 percentage points for white workers.
The EPI estimates are based on a survey conducted monthly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics but use numbers modeled at the state level by state labor departments.
New York, Virginia and Hawaii — which saw its crucial tourism industry hit hard by the pandemic — all saw Asian-American joblessness jump the most in the EPI report. In California, the jump was the second largest among all groups.
Cindy Shao, president of the Washington, D.C., regional Asian American Chamber of Commerce, said many Asian-Americans live in states hardest hit by the pandemic shutdown. “This might be a factor,” she said in an email.