Being unemployed and Asian is rare and, among some, a point of shame

June 29, 2012 at 12:26 am

Tiffany Lane/MEDILL Ivan Li (left), employment director of Asian Human Services in Chicago, continues to help translate Tu Huynh’s mail and paperwork after finding him a job 10 years ago.

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Tu Huynh has been working at a car alternator design and manufacturing company for 10 years.

But before that, Huynh, an immigrant, was unemployed – something that still looms large in his mind because of his cultural background.

“If you’re unemployed, you stay home all day the neighbors and friends figure out you’re unemployed because you’re always home,” Huynh said.

Huynh, a Vietnamese refugee of Chinese descent, came to the United States in 1984.

His jobless experience is something not that common for Asians.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics said last month that Asians have the lowest unemployment rate of any other racial group nationally.

But that didn’t help Huynh navigate his unemployment. In fact, experts say, that statistic makes unemployment even harder for people like Huynh.

Since he arrived in the U.S., he has worked about five different jobs –factory work, mostly.

Huynh, 56, lived in what is now Ho Chi Minh City. Once in the U.S., he said he went to Truman College for a year to improve his English, mostly to help him as he looked for work.

Huynh landed his first job in the U.S. at a factory making plastic products. Throughout the next few years he found jobs through families and friends as well as local employment agencies.

Then the hammer came down and he was without work for a year. During that time he applied to seven jobs without success and received unemployment benefits.

Tiffany Lane/MEDILL Locations at which individuals can get English as a Second Language training in Chicago.

He said he felt looked down upon for being unemployed and that his language barrier combined with the economy to keep him from finding a job.

Then he found help.

Ivan Li, employment director at Asian Human Services, who translated for Huynh for this story, helped Huynh find his current job at C.E. Niehoff and Co. 10 years ago.

“The stigma attached to being unemployed in the culture is that many people in Asia don’t want to be on welfare and public assistance,” said Li, a Hong Kong native.

He said that the agency, located in the diverse Uptown neighborhood, has about 800 clients a year. Most of the clients are from North Side Chicago. Li said about 80 percent of the people who come for assistance are on public assistance and only about 10 percent of those on public assistance are Asian.  To qualify people must be low income and legal U.S. residents.

The employment program began in 1997, although the agency has been around since 1978. The agency provides clients with: Assistance on their resumes, on-site computers to find jobs, a case manager to follow-up with, even after finding a job, and help them set up interviews.

The program was added to the agency after the Illinois Department of Labor contacted the agency and said it had grants through the Displaced Home Maker Program.  Asian Human Services applied and received $15,000.

“After that, other people realized we were placing people successfully,” Li said. “So we got more funding.”

Li said the agency currently has $1.5 million budget for the unemployment program.  He said federal funding for unemployment has been cut by as much as 20 percent in Chicago in the past few years.

“It’s becoming difficult to serve clients,” he said.  “Because we don’t have enough funding and don’t have enough staff.”

Ten years later, Huynh still meets with Li routinely to help him translate his mail and go through his paperwork.

“Language may be a barrier,” Huynh said. “But the key point is as long as you are hard-working and dedicated, you can overcome that.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics said in its report last month that Asians had a 6.4 percent unemployment rate in April compared to 7.7 percent for whites, 15.8 percent for African-Americans and 11.2 percent for Hispanics.

Statistics for the Chicago, Naperville and Joliet area were very similar in 2009, when Asians had a 7.2 percent unemployment rate.

Jim Borbely, an economist for the Current Population Survey that helped gather statistics for the labor department’s survey, said the unemployment rate for Asians has always been lower for other groups since he started his research.

“They have a lot higher proportion in jobs that are higher paying,” Borbely said. “They have a higher education rate as well.”

Robert Topel, professor in Urban and Labor Economics at the University of Chicago, also said Asians usually have higher wages than other ethnic groups and are more likely to go to school.

Tiffany Lane/MEDILL Unemployment rate (as a percentage) of different racial groups in the U.S. in March and April.

Li said his clients often find jobs through Asian business owners looking for same-language speaking employees who are familiar with their culture.

Topel however said that the statistic could not necessarily be because of Asian groups hiring one another.

“I wouldn’t say bonds between Filipino and Japanese groups would benefit from each other,” he said.

Topel said that the research was looked at as Asian culture as a whole and did not distinguish Asian groups from each other that are not similar in statistics.  They just display the trend of the group as a whole, he said.

“Asians and Asian immigrants have done very well,” Topel said. “So there’s a long history of this.”

Borbely said it is important to keep in mind that while Asians have a lower unemployment rate, they also make up a smaller percentage of the population.

According to the 2005-2009 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, individuals who are Asian alone make up about 4.4 percent of the country’s population.  African-Americans make up 12.4 percent and whites make up 74.5 percent.

Huynh said unemployment stems from more than a cultural issue for him.

“It’s also a question of survival,” he said. “If you don’t have a job, you can’t support your family.”