Teens Are Working As Essential Workers While Going to High School
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Teens Are Working As Essential Workers While Going to High School
“My family needed a source of income.”
“It’s just scary being around so many people knowing there is a pandemic going on and I’m at risk,” 18-year-old Sanaia says about working as a grocery store cashier as COVID-19 spreads. Sanaia, a high school senior who lives in New Orleans, says her mother is out of work due to the pandemic, so Sanaia got this new job in April.
Sanaia is just one of many teenagers who are working “essential” jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the federal government has advisory guidelines for which jobs are deemed essential during this pandemic, the particulars vary on a state-by-state basis. Although there don’t appear to be official figures for exactly how many essential workers there are right now, various news reports say that number is in the millions.
While the youth experience and perspective is often sidelined in conversations about labor rights, many teens are taking the same risks as adults. With their daily routines and social support networks upended, some young workers are struggling as much as any adult.
Youth workers make up a significant portion of the U.S. workforce, especially during the summertime when school is typically out of session. From April to July of 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that 21.2 million people between the ages of 16 and 24 were employed. Among the most common jobs for youth last summer are some that have been deemed essential in many states, including food service and health and education services. The employment rate for Black and Latinx young people last summer was about 58% each, around 45% for Asian youth, and 64% for white youth, according to the same BLS report. Many undocumented youth are also employed and are even more vulnerable to exploitation .
And while recent history has shown that many working teens in the U.S. do not contribute their wages to their families, all four teenagers who spoke to Teen Vogue for this article say they’ve taken on new employment to help replace income their parents have lost due to the pandemic. (They asked to use only their first names to speak candidly about their workplaces).
“I had to get this job because my parents stopped working due to COVID-19. My family needed a source of income, so I decided to work and help out,” Aryam, a high school student from Chicago tells us. Aryam has been working at Chipotle for more than a month and typically works 30 or more hours per week.
Juggling schoolwork, including preparation for Advanced Placement exams, has been a challenge for Aryam, who is also coping with being apart from her immediate family. Aryam tells Teen Vogue that she had to move 30 minutes away from home, where she lives with her parents, siblings, and grandfather, in order to help protect her grandfather from exposure to the coronavirus. “I only visit my family on Sundays and it has been hard having to live without my parents and younger siblings,” she says.
Sanaia also says that being apart from her family and friends is taking a toll on her during this time. “I am very close with my grandparents. I would visit them everyday after school and now I barely see them. Same for my friends,” she says. “Being that I’m in contact with so many people at my job, I really can’t [and] don’t want to be around them, putting them at risk.”
Another Chicago high schooler, 16-year-old Le’Tiana, says that working in a grocery store as a bagging clerk feels like a real risk. “It's been challenging. It's been an obstacle,” Le’Tiana tells Teen Vogue. “I went from going to work mentally free to having fear for my life.” In addition to working as a clerk, Le’Tiana has an internship through Youth Connection Charter School, where she is a student, and helps care for her younger sister and niece when her mom and older sister are working.
Miracle, an 18-year-old high school senior in Chicago, has also been working a new, essential job during the pandemic. Miracle is now working in a restaurant and, like Sanaia, started the job in April.
Work has been very busy because the restaurant regularly has very long lines of people ordering food for takeout. The restaurant has been taking some measures to mitigate risks to workers, Miracle says, including meticulous sanitizing and daily employee surveys about symptoms. But for Miracle the surveys don't seem like enough to keep everyone truly safe: “I don’t think it’s effective because some people may bend the truth because they have a family to take care of at home who they cannot give up on or leave hanging.”
According to an October 2019 report from the recruiting firm Robert Half, as many as 90% of American workers have come to the office when they feel sick, whether it’s because they can’t afford to take time away or they feel pressure from their bosses to continue working no matter what.
Though most school buildings across the country are still closed, students in most districts are expected to complete some level of schoolwork remotely, which is a challenge for many high school students due to different styles of learning or insufficient access to the internet at home. Students who are also working say that the combination of stressors has them deeply worried about their futures.
Aryam tells us that recently she has been struggling with how she should prioritize her time. “This makes my goals and expectations for the future very unclear,” she says. “It makes me worry about my grades and college.”
In addition to work, school, and the emotional toll of being separated from family and friends, young people are also participating in various mutual aid efforts in their communities and are taking care of their families.
In Chicago, Miracle says that she’s participating in three local mutual aid campaigns and trying to start her own business. She’s also helping to take care of her grandmother, who recently recovered from COVID-19.
Le’Tiana’s grandmother and grandfather were also diagnosed with COVID-19, she tells us, adding that her grandmother has been hospitalized and her grandfather is self-quarantining at home. “I have always been there for her and this time I feel like I am not there as I have been in the past,” Le’Tiana says.
Working, doing schoolwork, and jugging other responsibilities while missing friends and family has also changed Le’Tiana’s outlook on life. “It just shows me that I need to always be prepared,” she says, “[and] obtain a job that will always look out for you and pay attention to how [employers] treat you.”
Though the experiences of youth workers are often overlooked, even during a pandemic, Heather Hall, who is based in Winnipeg, Canada, has worked for years with the Junior Wobblies (the youth contingent of the Industrial Workers of the World), says that young workers “have all the same workplace issues as older workers [and] they also have some specific vulnerabilities and strengths.” The IWW organizes directly with young workers, who Hall says make excellent unionists.
“There is no one more well-positioned for these roles than young workers, who bring new ideas and viewpoints, new enthusiasm and flexibility, and stand to gain a lifetime of better working conditions,” she tells Teen Vogue.