Hmong immigrants among hardest hit by layoffs in down economy

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Keng Yang thought life in America would be easier than in Thailand, where he lived in a small hut and struggled to provide food for his family.

Now, sitting in a cramped, four-room apartment on Wausau's northeast side just a few years after leaving Thailand, he says times aren't much better.

"He doesn't know what to do in the future for (his) family," Yang's uncle David Yang said, translating for the 29-year-old father of two who in January was laid off from Wisconsin Box Co.

Yang is among about a dozen recent Hmong refugees from Wat Tham Krabok refugee camp who have lost their jobs in the economic recession. Though thousands of people in Marathon County have been laid off, the recent immigrants are barely established, sometimes don't speak English, lack education and often support extended family.

"I know it's going to be challenging," said Peter Yang, executive director of the Wausau Area Hmong Mutual Association.

Among the more than 420 Hmong who came to Marathon County from 2004 to 2006, about 90 are adults who can work, said Chaitua Nikolas Her, job developer with the Hmong Association. Of those, 74 were working, he said, until the economic downturn left an additional 12 or so without jobs. That's likely a hit to dozens, with many Hmong workers supporting and living with multiple family members.

Wausau's overall unemployment rate reached 12.1 percent in March, meanwhile, with Marathon County hitting 9.4 percent, according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.

The occupants of Keng Yang's apartment -- the upstairs portion of a small house -- include Yang, his wife, his two children, his younger brother and his brother's wife and two kids. They easily fill their small kitchen as Yang cradles his nephew. The dark stairway to their home is cluttered with dozens of pairs of shoes of all sizes.

Yang, who came to the United States in March 2005, said he made about $9 per hour and found it difficult to support the seven other people in his household. Now the household's income includes $250 in weekly unemployment and his brother's part-time job at JC Penney.

Times in Thailand were difficult, Yang said, but now he's again struggling to make ends meet, with the added stress of bills and other expenses.

Peter Yang said Hmong workers who lose their jobs apply for unemployment, dislocated worker programs and other social services. The Hmong Association helps them navigate the programs and aids companies that employ them, and the jobless also can tap into community aid organizations and churches.

Still, Keng Yang feels helpless. Finding a job is difficult with limited English, and he hopes some sort of work -- whether a product of the private sector or government -- will surface.

Tong Lee faces similar problems. Lee arrived in July of 2005 and was laid off in February from J&D Tube Benders of Schofield. He's taking the time, though, to improve his English through classes at Northcentral Technical College, and also hopes to get his high school diploma and study business.

"I need more English," Lee, 34, of Wausau said. "I want to study first."

That faith in education, for some, is the only bright spot. Yang, despite his fear of not finding a job, says his children's futures keep him determined. As the children chatter in the kitchen and peek into the living room, he remarks that he hopes other families don't lose that perspective.

"They might think life's very hard," his uncle David Yang said.


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