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Many AAPI Community Members Face Extra Burdens Returning to Work Following End of Pandemic Unemployment Benefits

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A sign saying "Job Fair" with a big red arrow points to a line of people.
Job seekers wait in line to enter the San Francisco Hire Event job fair on Nov. 9, 2011, in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

It’s been just over a month since more than 2 million Californians lost emergency unemployment benefits established by the CARES Act, a federal package signed into law in March 2020 to assist businesses, workers and health care systems affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

More than half of states ended some or all of these benefits programs early, hoping it would motivate more people to return to the job market, where many businesses still struggle to restaff.

But reports are mixed about whether this tactic got more people back to work, or just increased the financial burdens of unemployed people. Here in California, there's a wide spectrum of recovery rates. In some parts of the state, like Imperial County in Southern California, unemployment is nearly quadruple the national average of 5.2%.

Now, as more and more Californians look for jobs, some communities are shouldering extra burdens as they think about getting back into the workplace. KQED got a window into some of these challenges from Amos Lim, economic justice program manager with Chinese for Affirmative Action.

CAA is headquartered in San Francisco and supports the broader Asian American and Pacific Islander community through services like job placement. The organization prioritizes community members who have lower incomes, who are immigrants and who have limited English proficiency.

This interview from Sept. 22 has been edited for length and clarity.

KQED's Mary Franklin Harvin: What are some of the most basic barriers your clients are dealing with in their job searches?

Amos Lim: They are still majority limited English proficiency. A lot of them have challenges since everything is done remotely right now. Even job fairs are now done virtually.

(Lim explained that, in addition to limited English proficiency, many of his clients don’t have reliable tech access.)

So it's a different kind of barrier that is preventing them to find a job, because they have to complete everything online. They need to make sure that they have a steady internet connection [and] actually understand what the question is asking since everything is in English.

Are the applicants you are helping hesitant to go back to the same kinds of jobs they had prepandemic?

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In terms of job seekers ... a lot of our clients used to be working in the hospitality industry, in the hotels. And I think a lot of them were hoping to have the hotels reopened once the vaccine was available. But as of right now, hotel reopenings are not going on as quickly as we would like them to be, probably due to the delta variant. So we still have a lot of clients [who were] working in the hotel industry waiting for the hotels to come up. But at this point in time, they're just looking for any custodian jobs that are available out there, those who are ready to go to work.

But we do still sense a lot of [clients] not reaching out to us to help them apply for a job, because I don't think that they feel safe to go out to the job.

When you say they don’t feel safe, are you talking about concerns about the surge in AAPI hate crimes?

Yeah, that's been a lot of the concerns, as in they want to make sure that they are able to walk home from the bus stop ... without being attacked.

I have also heard through the chats that parents still don't feel safe for their kids to go to school. So that could be the other reason why they are also not going back to work, because they have to keep the kids at school or they are on the waiting list for after-school care, so somebody needs to be at home.

A lot of kids are under the age of 12, so they're not vaccinated and they live in SROs, single-family, those affordable buildings, in residential units. That was another concern for them, that they don't want their kids to be sick or to have it spread to their neighbors living in the same building.

Do you get the sense there is an overriding fear here, whether it’s COVID-19 transmission or fears around AAPI hate?

It’s really difficult to say, because the issue with the hate that the Asian community, the AAPI community, has been going through, it's insidious. It's just an atmosphere of fear that you have because you don't know why people want to attack you on the streets for no reason, just for walking, and if you see enough of it on TV and you hear enough of it on the news, it might not impact you or you might not be a victim, but the insidious fear is very strong.

I am able-bodied, but I have to say that, for the past six months, I used to walk every day, and yesterday was the first time I actually went out to walk because it was a sunny day and I just needed to take a walk.

Can you think of any changes in the near term that might lighten some of the burdens you see your clients facing?

That's a very difficult question to answer, because I think everybody's sense of personal safety and family safety is different. It's hard to gauge. But there is a general fear out there that the pandemic is still not over. I do feel that if the younger kids from 5 to 12 can finally get vaccinated, there will be less a sense of bringing the disease home ... But they're also dealing right now with the fact that the pandemic unemployment has ended, so, you know, trying to figure out how to provide for their families. So, it's stressful all around, I think, for them.

What is your big takeaway here? What do you want people to know?

There are a lot of circumstances that are affecting peoples’ ability to go back to work. And the fact that unemployment benefits, that pandemic relief has ended, and the eviction moratorium has been ... taken away by the courts. Those are additional stresses that we don't need, people in this country don't need. They just need to be able to feel safe to go back to find a job. And we need to figure out a way to make sure that everybody is taken care of and not just the able-bodied or the privileged people or the people who are doing OK. Because there's still a lot of unspoken-for voices that are looking for assistance and can’t find it.

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