Student workers grapple with job pressures during COVID-19 pandemic

Allie Zyck, Editor-in-Chief

For many, having a job as a teenager is a classic right of passage. However, during the unusual time of the COVID-19 pandemic, having a job is more complicated than ever as we social distance. While many may be temporarily out of work, other students may work as businesses deemed “essential services,” where they have to continue to go into work and interact with others, despite the potential risks that come with this.

Most of my students with jobs in the food industry can choose to work,” AP Economics teacher Pete Duffer said. “Some have been told not to [continue working] by their parents and others are still working. One student asked me to miss my scheduled Zoom so he can work to help his family.”

Essential services are jobs that are considered to be of paramount importance to supporting the health and safety of a community. In Illinois, essential services are considered any business or industry related to the following: healthcare and public health operations, human services operations, essential governmental functions, and essential infrastructure. Some businesses that regularly hire teenagers, like grocery stores or fast-food restaurants fall into this category. One student who is working through the pandemic is Alejandro Mejia, who works at Woodman’s Market in Buffalo Grove.

“Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, my job all of a sudden has become risky, a lot more stressful, and overall more demanding,” Mejia said. “I’ve been working twice the speed I usually work at with getting groceries back on shelves on time, rushing with checking customers’ orders up front, and maintaining a calm sense of mind and patience.”

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that mainly spreads through droplets made when an infected person sneezes or coughs, according to the World Health Organization. To keep from being infected, the Center for Disease Control recommends for people to avoid unnecessary social interaction, not gather in groups larger than 10, and to maintain a distance of six feet apart for others whenever reasonably possible. In order to help contain the spread of the virus, many states, including Illinois, have taken the unprecedented move of declaring a “shelter-in-place” order, requiring people to stay at home. 

“The reasoning is to limit contact with others to limit the highly contagious virus,” Duffer said. “ Limiting interaction has proven to work so as not to overwhelm the healthcare system.”

It’s because of this shelter-in-place order that student workers, such as Mejia, are now in the strange position of still being required to go to work while the majority of the state is required to stay at home. Since they are then interacting with the general public, they have a greater chance of contracting COVID-19- a scary proposition for anyone, let alone a high school student at a part time job.

“When I first step into work, I realize that I am putting myself at risk, better yet my family at home,” Mejia said. “I wash my hands every time I get the chance, I sanitize my hands with the dispensaries we have around the store, I wear gloves just about every time, and I wear a mask. I now realize how risky it is to be working during this time. Who knows, I could be asymptomatic.”

Of course, the threat of disease isn’t the only thing making going to work more stressful. For those students that work at grocery stores, like Mejia, they are forced to deal with anxious customers and supply shortages. Since many Americans started stocking up on supplies, many common goods, like hand sanitizer, toilet paper or fresh meat may not be in stock, according to NPR. Additionally, students who work in restaurants or fast food industry have had to adjust to their places of business being drive-thru or pick up only.

Being a high school student and having a job has always been a delicate balancing act for teenagers. Today, in our world that has been fundamentally changed by a global pandemic, it is an even more stressful situation where every essential worker has had to put themselves in potential danger. It’s an unusual job to have for teens in this unusual year.

           “People should be aware that they’re putting themselves and their loved ones at risk by shopping,” Mejia said. “They should be aware that we will continue to be busy and be out of stock for certain items constantly. They should also be aware that we employees don’t make the prices, nor do we set the restrictions on quantities to buy certain items”