Asian American, Asian Immigrant, and Pacific Islander Businesses and Workers During COVID-19
Recovery, Resilience, and Loss
Publication Date: 2021
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in February 2020, Asian immigrants, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders have been widely scapegoated for causing and spreading coronavirus. Along with the macroeconomic aftershocks, the pandemic presents a critical opportunity to analyze how racial stigma and racial violence shape the ways that historically marginalized and excluded communities experience disasters. This research explores the social and economic impacts of COVID-19 on Asian American, Asian immigrants, and Pacific Islander workers, using a mixed-methods study. In the preliminary phase of the research, we interviewed 40 such workers currently living in the United States. This ongoing study contributes to in-depth sociological knowledge about Asian immigrants, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders—ethnically, socioeconomically, and culturally diverse groups who frequently share overlapping experiences of racism and xenophobia. Findings reveal how public health concerns amid COVID-19 can compound pre-existing social problems and result in the need for risk assessment and mitigation, particularly for those Asian American and Pacific Islanders living in multigenerational households or working in public-facing sectors of the economy.
Sociologists have long documented social and economic instability (Enarson & Fordham, 20011; Juran, 20122; Enarson, Fothergill, & Peek, 20073, 20184) and disparate experiences during and after disasters across dimensions of race and ethnicity, immigration status, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, and disability (Adams, 20135; Giroux, 20066; Gotham, 20087; Reid, 20138; Luft, 20099). The COVID-19 pandemic has followed similar patterns of exacerbating existing social inequalities while adding another dimension: a sizable backlash against Asian immigrants, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders. Since the first cases were detected in Wuhan, China, thousands of people of Asian descent and Pacific Islanders have reported experiencing scrutiny, racism, and even physical violence as a consequence of media portrayals and political statements linking this population to COVID-19. Such stigmatization has resulted in more than 2,500 reports of verbal harassment, shunning, and physical assaults in the United States from March 2020 to August 2020 (Jeung & Nham, 2020a10; Jeung & Nham, 2020b11).
This report is part of a larger research agenda that examines how Asian immigrants, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders are broadly impacted by COVID-19 and looks at their experiences of economic loss and recovery during the pandemic. It focuses on three key aspects: racism, economic instability, and health risks. The report builds on literature that highlights the vulnerability of business owners and workers who regularly interact with the public (Peek, 201112), the disadvantages that Asian American and Pacific Islander workers face when reentering the workforce after disasters (Huang et al., 201913), and the importance of ethnic and faith-based community organizations in connecting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to financial and social support (Cherry & Allred, 201214; Rivera & Nickels, 201415).
Since mid-March 2020, the pandemic has led to the closure of more than 100,000 small businesses and the loss of 20.6 million jobs in the United States (Long, 2020; Soucheray, 2020). In April 2020, the state of New York reported a 10,210% increase in annual unemployment filings by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, 51,653 filings up from 501 in 2019 (Thorbecke & Zaru, 202016). Black filings showed a 1,927% increase; Latinx, a 3,222% increase; and white filings increased 2,904% (Thorbecke & Zaru, 2020). While limited research exists on Asian American and Pacific Islander communities during disasters in the United States, research suggests that they, like other immigrant communities, confront specific concerns such as language barriers and fear around interracial conflict that make many members reluctant to seek governmental sources of aid (Cherry & Allred, 2012). Previous research also suggests that Asian American and Pacific Islander workers who experience job loss after disasters are particularly vulnerable to developing post-traumatic stress disorder. They experience greater difficulty recovering financially as a result of having smaller social networks in the mainstream economy than white workers do (Huang et al., 2019).
Existing literature on the long-term social and economic impacts of the crisis points to a particular urgent need to study how Asian American, Asian immigrant, and Pacific Islander workers respond to the complex environment created by the COVID-19 pandemic (Adkins, 201217; Arestis, Charles, & Fontana, 201318; Castells, Caraca, & Cardoso, 201219; Galbraith, 201420; Harkness, 201621; Lin & Neely, 202022; Rugh et al., 201523). Businesses that are owned by Asian Americans or located in predominantly Asian areas reported sharp declines in patronage even before quarantine orders; some saw up to an 80% loss in business because of the racialized association of COVID-19 with Asianness (Olson & Tang, 202024; Shen-Berro, 202025; Yang 202026). Such patterns raise questions about how recovery processes for Asian American and Pacific Islander business owners might differ from those for business owners of other racial backgrounds (Wingfield & Taylor, 201627). Ishaq et al. (201028) showed that minority-owned small businesses regularly endure discrimination, harassment, and abuse even during so-called normal times. In the aftermath of 9/11, Muslim- and Arab-owned businesses frequently suffered from threats, violence, vandalism, and surveillance, sometimes resulting in sizable monetary damages (Peek, 2011). In the context of racial stigma, the experiences of owners and other people working in small businesses are particularly important because they are often the most visible and conspicuous members of ethnic communities and the most likely to interact with the general public (Peek, 2011).
Asian immigrants, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders are a diverse population that represents more than 50 ethnicities and at least 40 languages (Ramakrishnan & Ahmad, 201429). Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders report a range of median incomes (from $46,950 for Bangladeshi Americans to $95,000 for Indian Americans) that points to a wide variety of work experiences within the broader community (Ramakrishnan & Ahmad, 2014). With regards to socioeconomic diversity, our project considers multiple ethnic communities, such as particular Southeast Asian immigrant communities that have higher proportions of members born in the United States, but lower socioeconomic statuses compared to other Asian Americans and Pacific Islander ethnic groups (Walton, 201530).
Research suggests that members of immigrant communities are often hesitant to seek help from governmental sources (Cherry & Allred, 2012). Research on Filipino Americans and Vietnamese Americans during Hurricane Katrina showed that community-based organizations, particularly faith-based organizations, played an important role in connecting them to financial and social support (Cherry & Allred, 2012; Rivera & Nickels, 2014). The relationships between Asian American and Pacific Islander businesses, workers, and community-based organizations are potentially significant, particularly since social capital plays a critical role in the ability of small businesses to recovery financially from disasters, even within the general public (Sydnor et al., 201731).
With a project team composed of qualitative, quantitative, and mixed-method scholars, our study uses in-depth interviews, surveys, and social media content analysis to gain a fuller picture of the pandemic’s social and economic impacts on Asian immigrant, Asian American, and Pacific Islander workers across industries. The research detailed in this paper reports on preliminary results from the labor component of our broader research study, which encompasses five other dynamics of Asian immigrant, Asian American, and Pacific Islander life. Aspects of community organizing and advocacy, health, education, family and caregiving, and use of online spaces are planned for future study.
The labor-focused component of our study is guided by the following research questions:
- What strategies are Asian American-, Asian immigrant-, and Pacific Islander-owned small businesses adopting to recover from financial losses incurred both from racial stigma and economic downturn?
- How does the stigmatization of Asian American-, Asian immigrant- and Pacific Islander-owned businesses, particularly within ethnic enclaves, affect broader feelings of solidarity and belonging within communities?
- How has racial stigma and social distancing affected Asian Americans, Asian immigrants, and Pacific Islanders working in industries that require close contact with customers (e.g., gig and intimate labor sectors)?
- How do Asian American, Asian immigrant, and Pacific Islander businesses and workers access financial and social support, and how do these processes differ in relation to ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status?
- How are Asian American, Asian immigrant, and Pacific Islander community-based organizations and activists mobilizing to provide financial and social support to workers and businesses?
- How has racism related to COVID-19 shaped the experiences of work for Asian Americans, Asian immigrants, and Pacific Islanders?
Data, Methods, and Procedures
The pandemic presents a critical opportunity for analyzing how racial stigma and racial violence shape the ways that historically marginalized and excluded communities experience disasters and their economic aftershocks. In the next two years, our study will conduct: (a) in-depth interviews of 160 respondents (each respondent will be interviewed twice for a total of 320 interviews), (b) surveys of 4,000 respondents, and (c) digital ethnography with grassroots labor organizations.
For the qualitative portion of our study, we will conduct in-depth interviews with approximately 160 Asian Americans, Asian immigrants, and Pacific Islanders in both formal and informal economies across industries and income ranges, including small business owners and workers; self-employed and hourly essential workers; salaried essential workers (e.g., healthcare, childcare, K-12 teachers); and salaried nonessential workers. We will sample individuals from a range of industries to document and analyze disparities in social and physical risks, access to social networks and social capital, and feelings of future uncertainty that correlate to different levels of contact with other people; payment structures (salary, wage, or freelance); and degrees of flexibility and job security (paid time off versus unpaid time or risk of termination as a result of absences). Eschewing binaries such as skilled and unskilled labor, our study will investigate existing and emergent skillsets that business owners and workers must harness to survive a pandemic economy. Our study will anticipate how findings from our privileged participants can inform policy suggestions that often overlook the significance of compounding risk factors. For example, a small business owner who maintains stability may own property, as compared to renting, which would thus point to safe and affordable housing as a factor impacting labor conditions.
Our team will also survey 2,000 adults living in the United States, to gauge their attitudes about Asian Americans, Asian immigrants, and Pacific Islander individuals, businesses, and communities after one year of the pandemic. Questions will focus on attribution of blame for the pandemic to Asian American, Asian immigrant, and Pacific Islander individuals and communities. Screener questions for ethnicity will assist in sampling Asian Americans, Asian immigrants, and Pacific Islanders beyond East Asian ethnicities. The sample will include two waves, each consisting of 1,000 Asian American, Asian immigrant, and Pacific Islander respondents and 1,000 respondents not in that group, for a total of 4,000. We will use the same questionnaire for both groups, enabling us to make comparisons across racial groups and parse variation among Asian ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. These results will supplement and strengthen our qualitative findings to offer insight on the lived experiences of Asian Americans, Asian immigrants, and Pacific Islanders in an unprecedented political and public health moment. Using an intake survey, we will recruit and collaborate with the study group and general population community organizations (social service providers, faith-based organizations) to obtain a sample that encompasses a range of incomes, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and political orientations.
Sample Size and Participants
During this preliminary stage of our research, we conducted 40 in-depth interviews with Asian Americans, Asian immigrants, and Pacific Islanders from across the United States and prepared our quantitative survey for distribution. Respondents for interviews were recruited through an intake survey distributed over social media platforms, such as Asian American and Pacific Islander affinity groups on Facebook and Twitter, and through snowball sampling methods. Interviews were conducted via Zoom and recorded for auto-transcription. Undergraduate research assistants aided in transcription cleaning before collectively conducting transcription analysis. Interviews lasted from one to two hours in length, as interviewees discussed a range of topics, including how they were dealing with isolation and quarantine protocols, whether their workplaces allowed for remote work, and how they were navigating any experiences of racism or xenophobia in their daily lives.
Of the 40 participants in our preliminary sample, a majority were East Asian, with 32.5% living on the West Coast and 62.5% identifying as women. Detailed demographics are provided below in Table 1.
Table 1. Preliminary Sample Demographics (N=40)
|Income (Based on U.S. Tax Brackets)|
|$0 to $14,000||3|
|High School Diploma (Currently in College)||2|
After assessing our current sample, which skews towards East Asian and highly educated salaried workers across a range of ages and incomes, we developed a complementary approach for subsequent targeted recruitment strategies:
- In-depth interviews(targeted sample of 40 essential workers): We will collaborate with a Laotian researcher with family ties to the Midwestern meatpacking industries, facilitating our study’s access to a hard-to-access field site and population.
- Focus groups and digital ethnography: Led by project team member Dr. Rachel Kuo and funded by the Social Science Research Council’s Just Tech COVID-19 Rapid Response grant, we will work closely with a New York City-based grassroots organization of Asian migrant workers in informal economies to gauge the pandemic’s impacts on progressive Asian and Asian American worker-led movements. Through ethnographic methods, we will examine how communities navigate and assess risk using digital information and communications technologies with remote organizing strategies. Deepening relationships with working-class Asian migrant worker communities to help recruit for interviews will enable us to complement our existing sample. Our ethnographic- and community-engaged research will add another dimension to our qualitative methods and bring greater nuance to our study as a whole.
- Follow-up Survey and Interviews: We will conduct a follow-up survey approximately one year after the conclusion of the first survey with 500 Asian American, Asian immigrant, and Pacific Islander respondents and 500 respondents outside of that group. This follow-up survey will enable us to track general attitudes as they shift over time alongside changes in social and economic conditions. We will use Dynata, a global online market research firm, to assist in distributing the first wave of the survey. We will use targeted strategies for the follow-up to collect data on any ethnic groups with insufficient sample sizes from the first wave of data. Additionally, we will conduct follow-up interviews with all respondents from our previous phases of in-depth interviewing. Given our large sample size, we will stagger our schedule so that follow-up interviews for each respondent occur approximately twelve months after their first interview.
To recruit for our sample, we will collaborate with Asian and Pacific Islander community-based organizations and advertise on social media. With our team member locations in and affiliations with communities in Boston, Washington, D.C., Austin, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Hawaii; we will be able to target participants in the nation’s largest Asian immigrant, Asian American, and Pacific Islander enclaves while also covering multiple regions of the United States. We will work with immigrant advocacy networks to recruit undocumented Asian immigrants.
The mass economic uncertainty of the COVID-19 crisis means that our study will target low-income workers, as well as middle-class workers who are now on the cusp of economic loss and transition. Our study will consider the diversity of work experiences within Asian and Pacific Islander populations, including Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese immigrant restaurant and salon owners; Filipinos in nursing; Bangladeshis in the taxi industry; and Marshall Islanders in the poultry processing industry.
Researcher Positionality, Reciprocity, and Other Ethical Considerations
Our team is predominantly comprised of women researchers. As academics, we are invested in feminist praxis and actively work to address labor inequalities pervasive within academia. As such, our studies prioritize the intellectual contributions of graduate and undergraduate students. While a majority of our team is predominantly of East Asian descent, we intentionally collaborate with Southeast Asian, South Asian, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander researchers, students, and community organizations in an effort to uplift the work and contributions of these ethnic groups who are generally underrepresented in research on Asian and Pacific Islander communities.
Initial interviews with 40 Asian and Pacific Islander respondents revealed two emerging themes: risk assessment and exacerbation of pre-existing social inequalities.
Regardless of industry, workers must make complex decisions that seemingly pit one’s own personal safety against that of others. Occupational risks, workplace challenges, and governmental regulations that preceded the pandemic amplify emerging risks. Healthcare providers must provide care to patients while protecting their own safety, with some separating themselves from family as a measure of protection. They report anti-Asian racism as a factor intensifying feelings of social isolation.
Respondents also shared an increased level of foreboding and anxiety about visiting public spaces due to increased racist incidents, indicating that in addition to the health concerns common across the general public, Asian and Pacific Islander people continue to live in fear of racism-related risks as well. Names have been changed to ensure there is no breach of confidentiality.
Lily, a Korean American mother of two, recalled her young children’s fears of leaving the house to take walks around the neighborhood:
Whenever, even going out, taking a walk, my kids [will say], ‘Mommy, what if people, what if they spit on us?’ because they saw that in the news . . . then I kind of have to calm them down . . . With my kids, I need to make sure nobody comes next [to] or close to us . . . I’m always conscious about who’s coming next to us.
While those living in areas with a greater density of Asian Americans, Asian immigrants, and Pacific Islanders may feel somewhat protected from anti-Asian rhetoric because of “strength in numbers,” those living in places with fewer such residents tend to feel more exposed and self-conscious. Respondents expressed concern about themselves or loved ones being victims of anti-Asian racism related to COVID-19.
Jonathan, a Vietnamese American government worker, said that his father now dislikes leaving his home because of the reactions of passersby:
He doesn’t like being looked at in public. He doesn’t like the fact that people look at him like he’s not even human, you know? Like he’s some sort of infected dog or something like that. I hate to say it, but that is the way that they look at some of us out here.
Interviews with Asian Americans, Asian Immigrants, and Pacific Islander workers in essential industries revealed heightened risks, such as fear of speaking out and losing employment. Their emotional responses also differed from those of Asian Americans, Asian immigrants, and Pacific Islanders working in high-earning salaried occupations. Southeast Asian workers in meatpacking industries reported feeling desensitized and normalizing COVID-19 despite high rates of illness and death in their communities. These early findings raise questions about coping mechanisms that Asian and Pacific Islander workers in precarious industries undertake to deal with extreme risks and social pressures.
Exacerbation of Pre-Existing Social Inequalities
Interviews with Asian American, Asian immigrant, and Pacific Islander workers in precarious industries suggest that economic relief policies should include support for both unemployed and underemployed workers. Restaurant workers described a double bind, where decreased patronage means that their paid working hours are cut, while they remain ineligible for unemployment benefits.
Linda, a Thai American college graduate, shared the burden she feels her father, a chef at a restaurant, carries as the financial supporter of her immediate family and her aunt:
I just worry for him and his safety and everything, because he’s super exposed . . . and the safety of maybe not [having] health insurance, like, his injuries that could happen at work are just very worrisome to me . . . because he’s the sole provider of our household.
Southeast Asian workers working in meatpacking facilities described the fear of speaking out against poor labor conditions and feelings of being desensitized to COVID-related illness and death in their communities. Such findings raise questions about coping mechanisms that Asian and Pacific Islander workers in precarious industries use to deal with extreme risks and social pressures. Asian American, Asian immigrant, and Pacific Islander workers in informal industries, especially those with precarious immigration status, have historically been targets of the criminal justice system. For example, street vendors have long complained of police harassment and ticketing, while massage parlor workers have undergone raids. Thus, while some Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders working in particular industries may favor criminal justice interventions, others might feel increasingly vulnerable as a result.
Our preliminary findings inform our strategies for capturing differences among Asian American, Asian immigrants, and Pacific Islanders that correlate with a number of social factors, such as socioeconomic status and citizenship. The pandemic has generated policy and legal initiatives that are likely to impact Asian American and Pacific Islander workers. For example, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economy Security Act (CARES Act32) expands economic resources and unemployment benefits for workers, while Rep. Grace Meng’s House Resolution 308 targets racist harassment and hate crimes against Asians and Pacific Islanders, and the New York Police Department’s Hate Crime Task Force emphasizes expanding law enforcement to respond to and document incidents (CARES Act; Congresswoman Grace Meng, 202133). While these policies aim to protect Asian American and Pacific Islander workers and communities, we believe that the CARES Act will be insufficient for supporting them in informal and precarious labor and that criminal justice legislation will potentially harm them in informal labor in general, particularly for those who are undocumented or migrant workers.
Research on Asian immigrant, Asian American and Pacific Islander businesses and workers over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic uncovers the socioeconomic and ethnic diversity within a little-studied racial group. Our preliminary interview data demonstrated how fears over anti-Asian racism compound health and economic risk factors for respondents.
Implications for Practice
We continue to analyze our preliminary findings, adjusting for gaps based on responses and refining our strategies of targeted recruitment to improve access and trust with vulnerable and marginalized groups. To that end, we continue to develop community partnerships and are in the process of developing an advisory board of community members, policymakers, and academic researchers. Our community partners include: UNESCO’s International Coalition of Inclusive and Sustainable Cities (ICCAR); the U.S. Congressional Tri-Caucus Health Working Group on COVID-19; the Asian American & Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander COVID-19 Policy & Research Team; Ibis Reproductive Health; New York University’s A/P/A Voices COVID-19 Public Memory Project; Northeastern University’s Public Evaluation Lab Program; and the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Our study will inform policies and community-based strategies aimed at supporting racially marginalized populations, including young people, in the United States. Our project’s partnership with UNESCO’s International Coalition of Inclusive and Sustainable Cities (ICCAR) will connect us to municipal leadership and provide the opportunity to present the viewpoints of Asian Americans, Asian immigrants, and Pacific Islander young people and community-based organizations to key policymakers. ICCAR has also expressed interest in leveraging our research on domestic violence and mental health as an important priority for municipal policies. We anticipate our findings will help shape future development of policy and social services. Additionally, our project team has been invited to speak at federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Commerce. We will continue to use this platform to educate national policymakers about inclusive labor policies, impacts on Asian Americans, Asian immigrants, and Pacific Islander workers, and unique challenges faced by young adults entering the workforce. We will work with universities to develop strategies of supporting such students during remote learning.
Future Research Directions
As our study progresses, we will recruit respondents that include small business owners, gig economy workers, low-wage workers in essential industries, healthcare and other paid care workers, and workers in intimate labor (massage, acupuncture, and sex work). We also will recruit interview participants to uncover a more nuanced picture of the myriad ways that the pandemic is impacting various Asian and Pacific Islander ethnic groups. The descriptive power of our project offers significant potential for advancing sociological theories both on Asian American experiences specifically and more broadly on race, disasters, and work. With relatively few social scientific studies of Asian immigrants, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders, greater clarity around the complex factors shaping how these groups are impacted by social problems is necessary. The long-term design of our research study is also significant. Being in a moment of crisis can result in existing research speaking to short-term effects of COVID-19. Our research strategy enables our team to cross-reference immediate, medium, and long-term observations of how the pandemic continues and will continue to affect Asian immigrants, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders. It is our hope that doing so will help scholars and the broader public understand the differential impacts of the pandemic on racialized communities.
We thank our AAPI COVID-19 Project team members—Jason Beckfield, Rachel Kuo, Catherine Nguyen, Cynthia Wang, Mu Wu, Liwei Zhang, Jackie Leung, Susanna Park, and Kara Takasaki—for their constant dedication and commitment to this work. We value our research assistants, present and past—Justin Hu, Irissa Machetta, Charlie Nguyen, Brammy Rajakumar, Jennifer Su, Lucy Tu, Britney Vongdara, and Matteo Wong—for their willingness to dive into the project with open minds. We thank the administrative staff at Harvard University for fielding all of our comments and inquiries. Thank you to Linda Tinio and the UNESCO International Coalition of Inclusive and Sustainable Cities (ICCAR) for their support in all our work. And last but not least, thank you to Elena Ong and the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, & Pacific Islander COVID-19 Policy & Research Team for engaging in policy conversations around racial justice and public health, and inviting our team into an expansive network of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander community organizations.
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