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‘We sit all day and have no customers’: As pandemic wears on, Asian Americans worry livelihoods are on the line

Nail salon worker Amy Nguyen has had her work hours slashed because of effects of the coronavirus pandemic. A single mother of two who emigrated to Boston from Vietnam 18 years ago, she is pictured in the offices of VietAID, a nonprofit serving Vietnamese immigrants in Fields Corner.
Nail salon worker Amy Nguyen has had her work hours slashed because of effects of the coronavirus pandemic. A single mother of two who emigrated to Boston from Vietnam 18 years ago, she is pictured in the offices of VietAID, a nonprofit serving Vietnamese immigrants in Fields Corner.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

When her Charlestown nail salon closed under the governor’s orders last spring to stifle the spread of coronavirus, Amy Nguyen, a nail technician, was out of work and on unemployment for the first time in her life.

A single mother of two, Nguyen, who emigrated to Boston from Vietnam 18 years ago, was embarrassed at first about applying. But her English-speaking boyfriend helped her complete the application, which she had struggled to understand, and she was grateful she could stay home while her children’s schools transitioned to online learning.

Nothing was the same when the salon reopened in June.

“We sit all day and we have no customers,” said Nguyen, 41, who gets paid by the hour and now works only two days a week. She’s had to pull from her savings and collect partial unemployment to make ends meet. “I worry as it gets colder, the business will be closed again.”

Asian Americans have generally enjoyed the lowest unemployment rate in the country over the past 15 years. But their success as a group masks chasmic disparities between the highest earners and the lowest, who are struggling mightily as the pandemic continues.

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Nationally, the unemployment rate among Asian Americans has surged since the pandemic began. In May, Asian American joblessness climbed to a 20-year peak of 15 percent — a 500 percent increase from February. By October, Asian American unemployment had recovered some, dropping to 7.6 percent — higher than white unemployment at 6 percent, lower than Black and Latino unemployment at 10.8 percent and 8.8 percent, respectively. But that figure is still almost three times as high as their jobless rate a year earlier. And many, like Nguyen, fear their livelihoods are on the line in the grip of the pandemic.

“This is kind of the perfect storm or the perfect bad storm where a lot of factors are at play,” said Marlene Kim, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

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She noted Asian Americans tend to live in cities on the west and east coasts that have been hit hard by the virus. Asian workers also are overrepresented in industries that have suffered heavy blows as a result of the lockdowns and stay-at-home advisories, such as restaurants, retail, and personal services, like nail salons and dry cleaners. Anti-Asian prejudice has likely played a role, too, Kim added.

“There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that people have been avoiding Chinatowns or Asian-owned businesses because they think the Asians have COVID,” Kim said.

In Boston’s Chinatown, business has been sluggish since February, when news surfaced of the city’s first coronavirus case in a college student returning from Wuhan, China. Restaurants emptied out and layoffs were widespread. Some customers have returned, as eateries turned to takeout and delivery. But the once-bustling streets of Chinatown are chillingly quiet during the workweek now that the lunchtime rush from nearby offices has vanished.

“I’m really worried how they’re going to be able to pay their bills,” Debbie Ho, executive director of the nonprofit Chinatown Main Street, said of the plight of the neighborhood’s small businesses. Several Chinatown businesses, Ho noted, have taken advantage of the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, but for many, the loans haven’t been enough.

“A lot of businesses owe rent and past rent,” Ho said. She mentioned one local business owner who’s eight months behind on his rent payments, but “he just doesn’t have any [customers].”

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Kim worries these small businesses may never fully recover, especially if the companies these businesses catered to make their work-from-home policies permanent or more flexible. The consequences for the workers they employed — many of them immigrants who speak little to no English — could be devastating.

“A lot are going out of business now; they can’t hold on,” Kim said. “I think the fear is more closings until there’s a vaccine and people feel comfortable shopping and going out to eat again. But there could be permanent long-run changes with employment never coming back to where they were.”

Angie Liou, executive director of the Chinatown-based Asian Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit that develops and manages affordable housing primarily for low-income Asian immigrants, said she has “a hard time seeing when those jobs when will go back to normal.”

In the meantime, organizations like hers have tried to fill in the gaps. In March, ACDC, in partnership with several local nonprofits, launched the Asian Community Relief Fund to support Asian workers who’d lost their income. The groups raised about $350,000, which the ACDC distributed to nearly 360 households. Roughly half of that money went to undocumented families who don’t qualify for public benefits, Liou said, or workers who are paid in cash and therefore ineligible for unemployment insurance.

But fears abound, according to Liou, among immigrant families worried about jeopardizing their immigration status by taking advantage of these programs. She said President Trump’s inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies have created a “hostile environment” for immigrants and discouraged even those who are here legally from seeking help.

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Other emergency relief funds “were running out of money as soon as they could raise it. The demand was so great,” Liou said. “Ours was really slow going at the beginning ... And we believe that it was actually because people were really afraid, even if they were quote, unquote legally here.”

Lisette Le, executive director of VietAID, a nonprofit serving Vietnamese immigrants in Dorchester’s Fields Corner, predicts unemployment among Asian Americans will spike again this winter as more small businesses buckle under the pressure of the state’s second wave of coronavirus infections.

“It’s kind of scary what the future is going to be,” Le said. “We service a lot of nail salon workers and we’ve yet to see what the impact of the pandemic and closures will be on the nail salon industry, as well as what the winter is going to mean for us.

“Not in terms necessarily of COVID rates,” she added. “We’re always worried about that, but winter is typically in Massachusetts a slow time for nail salons."

At the height of the pandemic this spring, Christine Nguyen (no relation to Amy Nguyen), VietAID’s engagement coordinator, was answering as many as 30 calls a day from Vietnamese immigrants who needed help filing for unemployment insurance or pandemic unemployment assistance. The sheer volume of calls was overwhelming, Christine Nguyen said, and the unemployment systems were riddled with glitches and technical issues. The applications are in English, she added, which also created obstacles for the Vietnamese speakers she was trying to aid.

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“A lot of folks who did know some English actually ended up getting penalized in a way because instead of waiting for our office to get back to them and help them apply for unemployment, they would try to fill it out themselves,” she said. When they realized they’d made mistakes, they’d call her office apologetically.

“Aside from delaying people’s benefits, it was really damaging, I think, to people’s sense of independence and competence,” she said.

Amy Nguyen, the Charlestown nail technician, has always dreamed of opening her own salon. But lately, she’s begun considering alternative career paths, like factory work. She fears her limited English, however, would impede her job search.

“I don’t know what I’m able to do,” she explained through a Vietnamese interpreter. “And I don’t know if there’s any place that would take me.”


Deanna Pan can be reached at deanna.pan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @DDpan.