Asian Americans may have the lowest unemployment rate of any racial group nationwide, but a new report shows college-educated Asian Americans have a harder time finding jobs than whites.
The new report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), “Hidden Disadvantage: Asian American Unemployment and the Great Recession,” shows that in the fourth quarter of 2009, 7.2 percent of Asian Americans with bachelor’s degrees were unemployed, while only 4.7 percent of whites with the same education level were without work, even though Asian Americans have a slightly lower unemployment rate overall — 8.1 percent compared to 8.4 percent for whites, regardless of education level.
“The national figure hides the high level of unemployment in Asian Americans, ” said Dr. Algernon Austin, the author of report, who is also the director of the Race, Ethnicity and the Economy Program at EPI.
Austin said such disparity between Asian Americans and whites has long existed, but the recent massive job losses due to the recession have significantly widened the gap, which makes it more obvious. In 2007, the unemployment rate for Asian Americans with a bachelor’s degree was only 2.7 percent, compared to 2 percent in whites.
“It [the widened gap] shows that when the economy sours, communities of color are hurt more than the white community,” Austin said.
Although further research is required to fully understand the causes of the disparity, having a large number of foreign-born members in the Asian American community may be part of the cause.
According to the report, 79 percent of the Asian American labor force are foreign-born compared to only 4 percent in white workers. Therefore, the disparity may stem from the higher unemployment rate among foreign-born workers due to limitations with English and lack of access to job networks.
However, Austin said unemployment in foreign-born workers could not explain the entire picture because similar unemployment disparity also exist between U.S.-born Asian Americans and whites with bachelor’s degrees — 7.5 percent versus 4.5 percent, respectively.
He said further study is necessary to determine whether there are significant differences in the occupations and industries of Asian American workers in comparison with white workers, which Austin said helps explain the disparity.
While Asian American college graduates are disadvantaged in the labor market, those with lower education levels are actually holding on to their jobs better than whites.
And, interestingly, even though Asian Americans drop out of high school at a higher rate than whites, the report shows that in 2009, only 8.8 percent of Asian Americans without a high school diploma were unemployed compared with 14.3 percent of whites with comparable education.
King Szeto, language access coordinator at Legal Aid Society- Employment Law Center in San Francisco, has more than 10 years of experience in outreaching to the Asian community on labor rights and employment issues.
He said that many new Asian American immigrants without high school education often work as hotel or hospital custodians, bus drivers, grocery store workers, which are more stable and often protected by unions, allowing them to avoid massive layoffs.
“Moreover, new immigrants in desperate need for jobs to support their family are more willing to work extra hours and at a lower wage, ” Szeto said.
Szeto added that sometimes makes them easy targets for work exploitation because of their limited knowledge on employment laws.
“Ninety percent of people [who] experienced discrimination do not know they are discriminated against,” said Austin, “We really need to develop new methodology in tracking discrimination and enforcing equal opportunity.”
According to the report, California has a 10.2 percent Asian American unemployment rate, highest compared to Hawai‘i, New Jersey, New York and Texas.