CHICAGO — Before Amara Jackson leaves to work eight-hour shifts at the Whole Foods on the border of Chicago and Evergreen Park, she finishes the day’s remote learning schoolwork, takes her vitamins and sips a hot mug of “Immune Support” tea, adding honey to mask the taste.
The tea, vitamins and better eating habits are among the many steps she’s taking to try to stay healthy while she works through the coronavirus pandemic to help provide food for her family.
Jackson, a senior at Kenwood Academy, got the job after COVID-19 started to spread in Chicago, anticipating she’d need to help out with money at home, where she lives with her younger brother, mother and grandmother. Jackson used to work at Water Tower Place, but the busy mall was one of the first things to close.
Soon enough, Jackson’s mom, a field representative for an insurance company, had to stop working because it was no longer safe to risk exposure by going door to door.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues and the economic devastation worsens, many Chicago-area high school students have picked up jobs as essential workers to help out parents who have lost jobs or income. Other teenage essential workers have themselves lost other retail jobs or are trying to save for a future that has become much more uncertain.
At the same time, they’re dealing not just with the emotional toll COVID-19 is taking on them and their communities but the awareness that their jobs could put them in the virus’s path. And, on top of it all, they’re still students, still expected to participate in remote learning.
“My dad used to work 45 hours a week and now he can barely get 30 hours,” one Chicago Public Schools student wrote in an online petition seeking relief from the district’s grading policy for remote learning. “He doesn’t make enough for bills and food so I started to work two jobs of a combined 50 hours so I can help with the bills. I can’t even do homework.”
At the grocery store where Jackson works, she wears the face mask and gloves she’s provided, and employees wipe down conveyor belts and carts between customers, who aren’t allowed inside the store without a face covering. She fills orders placed by Prime Now customers, placing labeled bags in freezers for delivery drivers to grab. The pay is $17 an hour — $2 more than pre-pandemic times — and because she’s a part-time worker, she gets time-and-a-half pay when she works more than 30 in a week. Employees such as Jackson get 20% off groceries, and occasionally extra discounts of $10 or $20 off.
“I can definitely say that the virus has taught me to be more appreciative of how things were before,” Jackson said. “It doesn’t seem real to me still.”
At a Jewel-Osco 16 miles north, in Avondale, Sadie Soto works 30 to 35 hours a week as a stocker. The 18-year-old will soon graduate from Lincoln Park High School and needs the money for college expenses.
“I have a strong feeling (college) will be online” in the fall, Soto said. “I was excited to leave Chicago, have that genuine college experience.”
She also finds it harder to feel motivated for online learning and to have a connection with her teachers, though they’ve been responsive and helpful. But Soto said her mom, a CPS teacher, trusts her to do her work and pass her classes.
“It sounds sad, but I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is just not to care too much, be a little apathetic,” Soto said. “With everything going on it’s really easy to become downcast, it’s really easy to be sad about everything. We had one of my favorite vice principals leave, I had a school trip to Spain canceled, my prom is canceled, senior night was canceled, everything was canceled or changed and there’s a lot of emotions running high. And I think that if I became too attached to these things I would have had a really hard time coming to terms with that emotionally.”
At work, Soto sees people pulling their now-mandatory masks down below their noses or wearing them around their necks. The 6-foot social distancing rule has to be enforced, and customers often ignore the “one-way” stickers directing them around the store. It can be frustrating.
“What’s most convenient for them may not be the most healthy for the workers,” Soto said.
She wakes up about 6:30 a.m. to get ready and walk 30 minutes from her home to the store.
“When I get home, I am utterly exhausted. I thought working at a grocery store would be easier, but it’s really, really physically demanding in a way I didn’t expect.” She learned how to lift safely, but her back still aches.
“When I get home, honestly, the last thing I want to do is e-learning,” she said. She just wants to get into bed, take a nap and cuddle with her dog, Vicki, a Chihuahua-Pekingese mix.
At Cafe Zupas, the suburban sandwich shop where Avery Martin has worked since February, business has been slow, allowing her to chip away at schoolwork during downtime. Martin, a junior at Deerfield High School, has been working more weekly shifts since her school moved online. She makes sandwiches and salads or carries them out to curbside pickup customers. Zupas also set up a table and chair outside, where she sometimes sits, with tape marking every 6 feet. When it was colder, they had a heater and tent.
In addition to work and classes, Martin has been running the optional miles her cross-country coach has been suggesting, and she and a friend started a community outreach club focused on mindfulness. Writing letters to senior citizens for an hour every week is always the most relaxing part of her day, she said.
Learning without the structure of school has been more difficult. She forgot to take a test the other week — it completely slipped her mind — but her teacher let her make it up.
“Sometimes it’s tough to go into work and sometimes it can be a little weird or scary, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Martin said. “If I’m asymptomatic, I don’t want to pass that on or receive it and pass it on to my family from working. … Regarding the essential worker thing, I’ve thought about that before, but compared to all the people like the health care workers who are really putting their lives at risk, it’s not as scary.”
Elk Grove High School junior Kaylyn Ahn, 16, said she hears people talk about thanking essential workers, but she never thinks of what she does as anything noble.
About a month ago, Ahn got a customer service job at a Domino’s pizza, where several of her co-workers are also in high school. Though her mom has still been working, her dad gave a break on rent to a restaurant that leases space from him, and the gym where her brother taught swim lessons has closed.
“We were kind of worried about money … but I think we are financially good now,” she said.
Her shifts have been scheduled on evenings or weekends, so she can tune in to all her classes. She’s putting most of the money she makes toward her college savings, anticipating she’ll have to pay a large portion of it, as her older brother has done. Yet the extra free time she has to work comes from canceled in-person activities, such as mock trial and DECA, an emerging leaders group.
“I’ve lost a lot of opportunities to fill up my applications with activities,” she said. But then again, so has everyone else.
One Chicago high school student aced a physics test by sending a set of photos showing his work, according to his teacher at George Westinghouse College Prep.
“He showed all his work on napkins, which he did while working at the grocery store to support his family,” the teacher tweeted. “And it was a perfect score.”