Korean-Americans still getting settled
Immigrant group in country for about 40 years but ‘still in the settlement stage’
By Antonio Olivo | Chicago Tribune reporter
11:22 PM CDT, June 25, 2008
It’s been 33 years and Imja Han is still working at the same audio equipment factory in Wheeling, struggling on $15.65 an hour to make her mortgage payments.
To assemble the tiny parts, “I have to use microscope all day, every day,” Han, 64, said in halting English. “I’m getting old now, so I have dry eyes. It’s very hard.”
The Skokie immigrant’s story is part of a new survey of Korean-Americans to be released Thursday that shows many in the Chicago area are barely getting by.
Among the region’s about 35,000 Korean-Americans, the average income is roughly $37,000 per year, the report showed, citing 2006 U.S. Census Bureau figures. Of the nearly 200 people surveyed, 7.4 percent were unemployed.
The assessment, which also includes details about Korean employers, is part of a new plan to better organize the region’s sixth-largest immigrant community, said Young Sun Song, a coordinator with the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center, which helped conduct the survey.
In the region for more than 40 years, Koreans “are still in the settlement stage,” Songsaid. “People think it’s time to figure out how we can be more actively engaged in this society.”
Doing that remains a challenge, given some obstacles presented in the survey.
Although nearly 70 percent of all Koreans are college graduates, nearly half of workers surveyed confessed that they are more comfortable communicating in Korean than in English. About a third of the employers interviewed said they rely more on Korean.
Nearly half of the workers surveyed had no health insurance and roughly 75 percent didn’t know federal minimum wage laws require they earn at least $5.85 per hour.
About 60 percent of Korean employers surveyed didn’t know the minimum wage. Three-quarters didn’t know federal labor protections extend to non-U.S. citizens.
The latter category has fed into tensions between Korean employers and workers from other ethnic groups, said Song. In recent years, lawsuits filed by Latino employees have cost Korean employers roughly $1 million in total fines, she said.
That and other potentially uncomfortable subjects will likely be addressed during a conference about the survey results planned Thursday at Foster Bank in North Park.
While the still growing community has plenty to boast about, “psychologically, we’re going through a lot of depression,” Song said.