KU study finds Asian Americans hit hardest by COVID-19 unemployment, but exactly why is unclear

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World File Photo

Strong Hall on the University of Kansas campus is shown on Sept. 13, 2018.

Four researchers at the University of Kansas found recently that Asian Americans have been hit harder by unemployment related to the COVID-19 pandemic than any other minority group in the United States, but the reason why isn’t exactly clear.

Since the pandemic took hold in March, Asian Americans have suffered the greatest percentage of overall job losses and lost jobs at a 9.7% higher rate than white workers among those with less education, the study found.

ChangHwan Kim, a KU professor of sociology co-wrote a new article titled “COVID-19 and the Decline in Asian American Employment” with university graduate students Andrew Taeho Kim, Scott Tuttle and Yurong Zhang, according to a KU news release.

Professor Kim said in the news release that typically in times of economic disaster, Asian Americans have been more or less exempt from the job losses that strike other groups. But with COVID-19, that hasn’t been the case, he said.

The study narrows this down to two possible explanations: workers are voluntarily leaving their jobs, or they’re leaving due to discrimination.

“Compared to other racial groups, Asian Americans are more keenly aware of the danger of this virus. It first affected people in China, then spread to Korea. So Asian Americans know the danger because they hear from relatives in these countries. Maybe there’s additional concern in their community,” Kim said in the release.

Also uncovered in the study is that the discrimination Asian Americans potentially face in the work environment due to the pandemic is layered: COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, China, and President Donald Trump still regularly uses racist phrases such as “the China Virus” or “Kung Flu” to describe the deadly respiratory disease. And while these are the prevailing discrimination factors, underlying them is the level of education a worker has received.

“For the well-educated workers, they are relatively more secure,” Kim said. “But for the less-educated workers, it’s actually easier to discriminate. If you look at what happened to African Americans before the pandemic, usually less-educated workers are more discriminated against in the market.”

The article mentions that the lower level of education that workers have, the more likely it is that their job involves some form of manual labor or physical interaction with people that workers with higher education may be in a position to shield themselves from.

“This creates a hostile environment. The FBI has reported that hate crimes against Asian Americans have increased dramatically because of this,” Kim said.

In the news release, Kim predicted that if a COVID-19 vaccine were made available soon and the economy could pull itself out of a recession, job numbers for Asian Americans would return to what they were pre-pandemic.

The article has been published virtually in a journal called Research in Social Stratification and Mobility.


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