Islah Johnson, 18, often arrives to work before her boss. Even through the winter months, she stood outside the restaurant before 10 a.m., waiting to be let in.
“If I’m late, it’s a problem,” she said.
Once inside, through much of this school year, she would wash dishes, cook food, take orders, run the cash register — and, when she could, listen to her virtual classes through headphones on her phone.
Johnson, a Southwest Philadelphia native and senior at Paul Robeson High School, had trouble concentrating on the lessons. It was an exhausting back-and-forth, she said.
When her teacher asked a question, she’d hustle to unmute herself, answer the question, and then go back to work.
“I don’t even know what I do on a daily basis now. All that’s in my head is just work work work work.”
For many people, the pandemic economy has meant less work. Nationally, millions lost jobs. Others dropped out of the workforce to take care of their families. Some retired for COVID safety reasons.
But anecdotally, there’s another group that has leaned into new work opportunities: high school students like Johnson.
Virtual school made multitasking possible, and school leaders say they’ve seen a surge in students working the cash register while streaming virtual classes.
In Philadelphia, the opportunity to work has been especially present. All students in the School District of Philadelphia were remote until March, and most 10th through 12th grade students have spent the entire year without in-person classes.
Johnson, who works six days a week at a restaurant from open to close, started working when her father lost his job early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I couldn’t leave everything on him,” said Johnson. “I had to do something.”
Her dad was able to find a new job, but she’s continued to help him pay the bills, cover her personal expenses, and send money to their family in Liberia. She puts anything extra in her piggy bank, for the future.
Johnson is also undocumented, and has been paid under the table as she awaits full citizenship. Due to the sensitive nature of her status, WHYY agreed to change her name at her request to protect her identity.
In 2020, the Trump administration signed a bill allowing Liberian immigrants to earn refugee status. Johnson just got her fingerprints done, and will soon receive her first state identification card.
But, as of now, she says she earns $250 a week for 60 hours of work, which turns out to be about $4 an hour, well below Pennsylvania’s minimum wage.
“Being at that job — I’m just trapped,” she said. “I can’t do nothing.”
Johnson says she has experienced a history of being taken advantage of. She was nine years old when she first arrived in the United States by herself, and was charged with doing housework and child care for the families who housed her.
“I was taking care of babies as young as I was. I was a baby, what do I know about taking care of babies?” said Johnson. “When people see young kids, they see opportunities.”
Lately, she hasn’t needed to zoom into class while at work. Paul Robeson Principal Richard Gordon helped her reconfigure her class schedule around her job so she can attend class in the morning before her shifts.
She still doesn’t have time for homework until after the restaurant closes at 10 p.m. She often stays up until 3 a.m. to get it all done.
The youngest of 15 siblings, Johnson is partly working so hard so she can bring her whole family to the United States.
“I’m trying to change our lives… Everything is just on me,” she said. “Sometimes I just wanna put my head in a pillow and just shout.”
In the meantime, Johnson has been missing out on many ordinary teenage experiences. On picture day, she wanted to take the day off to get her makeup and hair done, but her boss didn’t allow it. They gave her an hour.
Johnson’s feelings about her teenage years are complicated. She hopes her struggles will lead to a better future — one that will give meaning to the sacrifices she and her loved ones have made.
“There’s a stereotype of Africans of how we are not smart and how we cannot change the world. I want to show people that there’s more to us,” said Johnson, who is graduating on the honor roll. She’s set to attend the Community College of Philadelphia in the fall on a scholarship and wants to be a gynecologist.
She tells her story because she wants school leaders across the city to better understand the struggles of immigrant students.
“You feeling bad for me isn’t going to change it,” said Johnson. “But the thing you can change is help stop another child from going through that.”
‘A thousand Einsteins’
Principal Gordon is alarmed by the number of students working this year.
He’s noticed that teens are picking up extra hours at work because their families are in “survival mode” due to the pandemic.
Students at Paul Robeson High School are mostly Black and low-income, and Gordon says a lot more students have been missing school than in previous years.
“We have a thousand Einsteins, they’re out here in our minority communities,” said Gordon. “Unfortunately, they’re not able to make the necessary sacrifices in order to be those individuals and fulfill those destinies cause they have to figure out ‘how am I going to get by today?’”
Gordon canceled classes on Fridays in response to the increase in absences. Instead, students are supposed to check in with teachers and work independently.
Gordon ties it all to larger questions of school equity. Like many school buildings in Philadelphia, Robeson is run down, and nowhere near the shape of most suburban schools. For instance, one classroom is in an old garage.
He says these things send a message that students interpret as: “If it’s not important to you, then it’s not important to me. So I might as well just go to work.”
Nationally, teen unemployment rates are declining faster than adults.
Stephen Joyce, economics professor at Drexel University, ties this trend into a nationwide reckoning around wages.
Joyce believes that time off due to the pandemic has allowed many adults to reflect on why they were doing a certain job in the first place.
“What might be happening,” said Joyce, “is that these wages look much more attractive to young people than they may to an older worker who now feels — after taking time off after COVID — that perhaps they could get a job that paid better.”
Gordon asks, how can the School District of Philadelphia and the city make school more attractive than work? How can the city invest in families so teens don’t have to worry about putting food on the table and can think more about the long term?
“Are we going to continually have kids who are only going to envision themselves working at the local grocery stores, or being the custodians, or being the security guards?”
As COVID-19 restrictions continue to loosen, and more businesses reopen, the need for workers is only growing.
Ashanti Ortiz, a senior at Kensington Health Sciences Academy, just got her first job at a retail store in Center City.
Ortiz wanted to ease the burden off her single mother by paying for her own expenses.
She started part time, but her bosses keep asking for more hours. She now works six days a week and misses most of her classes.
Ortiz is consumed with work. “It’s just draining, everything, physically, mentally,” she said.
Her job involves everything from stocking clothes to working the register and dealing with customers. She isn’t allowed to carry her phone with her, so she’s unable to listen to class. She does most of her schoolwork when she gets home.
“My body hurts just completely. I’m on my feet for like 13 hours a day,” said Ortiz. “Sometimes I’ll be too tired, I’m too tired to actually open the laptop, like I can’t even keep my eyes open.”
Ortiz has to teach herself what her peers learn in class. She asks her teachers questions when she can. She’s been able to keep up with assignments and stay an ‘A’ student. She plans on attending cosmetology school in the fall.
But she does have regrets.
Her advice to other students, “Do more in school… and enjoy the stuff that you can.”
Ortiz had to learn that lesson this year after she missed her prom. She was working and missed the deadline to buy a ticket.
“It’s something that I will never be able to do again, but stuff happens for a reason… So hopefully I’ll have fun later on in life.”
WHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.
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