Asian Americans face longer periods of unemployment, other labor market challenges

Commuters arrive from Metro North Railroad trains in Grand Central Station in New York.
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Asian American workers face the longest periods of joblessness and other labor challenges, despite having the lowest unemployment rate out of any racial or ethnic group in the U.S.

Economists say aggregated data and topline numbers fail to capture the complex and diverging labor market experiences of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

“Asian American workers’ labor market statistics usually reflect healthier conditions than for the average worker,” said Carmen Sanchez Cumming, a senior research assistant at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. “But there are also big, big disparities, and it has implications for how resources are distributed.”

In April, Asian workers in the U.S. had an unemployment rate of 3.1%, according to the Labor Department. That compares with the overall U.S. unemployment rate of 3.6% and the white unemployment rate of 3.2%. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not report monthly metrics on Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander workers.)

However, other labor market statistics suggest Asian Americans suffer from long-term joblessness more than other workers. The median duration of unemployment for Asian Americans was 21.9 weeks in 2021 — the longest period of any racial or ethnic group tracked by the BLS. Asian men in particular saw a median period of joblessness of 26.1 weeks.

Last month, Asian men saw an average unemployment period of 46.2 weeks and Asian women experienced joblessness on average for 33.9 weeks, a report from Equitable Growth found.

“The longer a period of one’s employment, the more difficult it is for a worker to become employed again, and then if they do, it’s usually at a lower wage,” said Sanchez Cumming, an author of the report.

Transition rates — the likelihood of a worker moving from unemployment to reemployment — also show Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have a hard time getting reemployed once they became unemployed, according to an analysis from the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

This longer-term unemployment outcome remains even when adjusting for factors like age and educational attainment.

“Once you control for a bunch of demographic factors, and if you still see a lower transition rate for a certain group of workers, you will just attribute that to labor market stereotype or discrimination,” said Julie Cai, an economist at CEPR.

In the first quarter of 2022, AAPI women were the least likely to transition into a job after being unemployed when compared with AAPI men, Black, white and Hispanic workers, CEPR’s research showed.

Month-to-month work transition rate of unemployed workers

AAPI Women AAPI Men Black Hispanic White First half 202123.422.920.527.525.4Second half 202122.422.223.631.429.2First quarter 202224.531.724.335.230.5

(Source: Julie Cai, CEPR, using calculations from the monthly Current Population Survey. Work transition is measured through month-to-month transition from unemployment to employment. Results are adjusted for workers’ age, education attainment and state of residence. AAPI, Black and white groups do not include individuals who identify as Hispanic.)

Research from previous recessions suggests certain factors also influence the difficulties Asian workers in the U.S. face when attempting to regain employment, Sanchez Cumming said. A large share of Asian American workers is born outside of the U.S. Visa-related barriers can occur, and not speaking English as a first language is a labor market disadvantage. Attaining education abroad is also penalized.

Economists also point out the vast labor market disparities existing within the larger AANHPI category. Asian Americans have the greatest intragroup economic inequality in the country, Pew Research Center found.

“Various AANHPI subgroups are concentrated in low wage occupations and others in high wage occupations. This dynamic is driven by differences in culture, immigration patterns, generational wealth, as well as intersecting gender, racial and ethnic biases,” said Lauren Hoffman, associate director for women’s economic security with the Women’s Initiative at American Progress.

For example, Nepali women in 2020 made as little as 46 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men, while Taiwanese women were paid $1.20 for every dollar white, non-Hispanic men made, Hoffman’s analysis found.

“It’s quite important and pivotal to disaggregate or to try to understand better how the subgroups within this population behave in terms of labor market outcome,” Cai said.

Disaggregation is “the only way that we’re going to be able to have comprehensive, broad policy solutions for these issues,” Hoffman said.

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