Business, Finance & Economics

Recession hits immigrants in health care industry

Many immigrants come to the United States in search of economic opportunity, and American employers usually have lots of opportunity to offer. Just not during a recession. The economic downturn is affecting Asian immigrants working in the health care industry.

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Gigi moved to Los Angeles three years ago from the Philippines. She didn’t want to give her last name.

"I work as a caregiver. I take care of elderly people. Right now, I’m taking care of an 83-year-old woman who has Parkinson’s disease."

Gigi does this two days a week: bathing, feeding, and grooming the elderly woman. For this, Gigi takes home $100 dollars a day. That adds up to just under $10,000 dollars a year.

"Oh, yes. Very. I’m so worried. I mean, I only work two days a week. How am I going to make ends meet? You know, I have to send some money over there in the Philippines, and I have to feed myself. I have to pay my rent. You know, it’s not enough. $800 dollars a month, it’s not enough."

She says this is not the American dream she envisioned. She thought going into healthcare was a conservative, safe job choice. Not so in this economy.

"Whenever I make calls, they would say, 'Oh, business is slow. We’re not hiring. Maybe call back after 6 months.'"

Gigi has fallen through the cracks of the healthcare industry.

"I’m not surprised that the Filipino lady who you talked to shared with you that she had less hours, because personal resources of many people were, as we know, depleted so much. Only those who have substantial resources can afford in-home care," says Tatiana Kodner, the Director of Refugee and Immigrant Services at Jewish Vocational Service, or JVS, in Los Angeles. Kodner’s job is to help new arrivals to the US find work. She says placing them in healthcare is normally a can’t miss.

"The biggest growing industry in the next, let’s say 25 years is healthcare industry. And so the demand for nurses is growing exponentially."

But for Kodner to place her clients in healthcare these days, they need some formal training. JVS offers a 12-week program to prepare people for a state exam to become nurses’ assistants.

"And then we place clients on the jobs almost immediately."

Someone like Gigi, the nurse from the Philippines, is eligible for a training course at JVS at no cost to herself. A certificate could get Gigi out of in-home care and working in an assisted living facility or hospital. That’s a more recession-proof area of healthcare. Gigi is a legal resident.

Somebody like Mr. Park, a 54-year-old immigrant from South Korea, wouldn’t be eligible for this training. He’s here illegally. Mr. Park asked me not to use his first name. He also works in healthcare, driving elderly patients to and from the hospital. For this, he earned just under $20,000 a year before taxes. In March, he was let go. For Mr. Park, it’s a recurring nightmare. He originally came to Los Angeles not long after he lost his small business during the Asian Financial Crisis in 1998.

"Thinking about that time even now is very painful. I was doing well, running my own business until the economic crisis hit Asia and Korea. But when comparing 1998 to today, it’s harder today. I don’t know the system here, the language, or the culture."

Mr. Park’s wife works as a waitress. But her salary won’t even cover their rent, let alone support their four children. Mr. Park has no savings, no credit card. To earn a few extra dollars, he’s begun making soymilk at home and selling it in the neighborhood. On top of his financial problems, he’s constantly worrying about being deported.

"I always live in fear. I don’t know when and where something like that will happen. My worry is about my children. What will they do here? They were raised in Los Angeles. They’re accustomed to the school system and culture here."

This is a predicament that many undocumented workers face: stay in the US without work, or head home and leave family members behind. Mr. Park says he isn’t leaving, but as an unemployed immigrant here illegally, he doesn’t have much of a safety net. He paid taxes, but doesn’t qualify for unemployment insurance. In this economy, immigrants like Mr. Park rely on family, friends and their communities for support.

"At least most of us don’t go to the homeless shelters, because I think it’s part of our culture that we just help each other in times of crisis or times of recession," according to Lolita Andrada Lledo, the associate director of the Filipino Workers Center of Southern California. She says small social service organizations like hers are swamped with people looking for help right now, whether it’s finding a new job, a place to stay, or even just a meal.

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