Teens as ‘essential’ workers: How high schoolers stepped up for family during COVID-19

For thousands of Philadelphia-area teenagers, the end of the school year brings extra relief: a break from balancing being both a student and an essential worker.

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Sherlyn Bailon (right) and Gloria Lumbrano-Torres are high school students learning remotely, while working full time at the DeKalb Supermarket in Norristown. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Sherlyn Bailon (right) and Gloria Lumbrano-Torres are high school students learning remotely, while working full time at the DeKalb Supermarket in Norristown. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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Gloria Lumbrano-Torres’ bedroom walls are lined with vinyl records.

She favors soul and gospel classics: The Every Brothers, James Cleveland, Lou Rawls.

But the Norristown resident, who is 18 and a graduating senior at Norristown Area High School,  has yet to drop the needle on any of her coveted albums.

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“I listen to them on my phone because I haven’t gotten my record player,” Lumbrano-Torres said. “I’m saving up for that.”

She had been saving by working as a cashier at DeKalb Supermarket in Norristown, but buying a record player has taken a back seat to paying rent, bills, and groceries since the pandemic hit in mid-March. Lumbrano-Torres’ aunt, who raised her and is her guardian, was laid off from her job at a restaurant, and because she is undocumented has been unable to collect unemployment.

No longer expected to attend class every day in person during the shutdown, Lumbrano-Torres felt pressure to contribute to a crowded house that includes two of her sisters, their spouses and their children. She started working six days a week to help make ends meet.

“At one time I was the only one working at my house,” she said. “I would stay up at night to do my [school] work…I would try and do it on my own, or just rush it, or try and get answers from my friends. It [was] hard.”

As the school year comes to a close, teenagers across the country are grappling with what the time-honored traditions of graduation and summer break look like in a world wracked by a global pandemic.

But, for Lumbrano-Torres and thousands of Philadelphia-area teenagers, the end of the school year brings extra relief: a break from balancing work as a student and an ‘essential worker.’

The DeKalb Supermarket in Norristown. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

What it means to be ‘essential’

Workers aged 14-18 filled about 1% of all jobs deemed essential during the shutdown in the Philadelphia metro area, according to census data analyzed by Philadelphia Works, the city’s workforce development board.

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For many working teenagers, the pandemic largely meant less opportunity: about half of that demographic work in restaurants and other food service jobs were hampered by stay-at-home orders.

“It is my feeling that a large number of teens lost their jobs and they have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19,” said Meg Shope Koppel, Philadelphia Works’ chief research officer.

However, teens are also overrepresented among workers in grocery stores, an industry deemed essential.

About 8% of people employed in the grocery sector in the Philadelphia area are ages 14 to 18, according to Shope Koppel, totaling about 5,600 teenagers.

Sherlyn Bailon, 17, got hired as a cashier at DeKalb Supermarket last fall. She said, at first, the job, which paid $7.75 an hour, was just for spending money, and was a lower priority than schoolwork and lacrosse practice.

Coronavirus changed that. Bailon’s mother, who is also undocumented, lost hours at her job at a eyeglass warehouse in Collegeville. Suddenly, the high school junior was a key household contributor, helping her mother support her two younger brothers on a pandemic-boosted wage of $8.50 an hour.

“I am, as they say, an essential worker. So if my mom needs money for food, I am going to give it to her,” Bailon said. “Right now the money I get is honestly useful to the family.”

The Norristown School District began remote learning in mid-April. Since then, when Bailon has to pick between school and work, school often loses. She’s been working five days a week, and her schedule is always shifting.

“It’s not like I can do anything about it,” Bailon said. “If I have to go in, I will go in. Money is money.”

Daisy Bailon, Sherlyn’s mother,  said she feels like her daughter has juggled her obligations well.

“It’s good she is earning money…and as long as she doesn’t get sick, it is fine that she is working and doing school at the same time,” she said in spanish.

‘My head was not in school most of the time’

Jill Myers has long been used to her students at Norristown Area High School balancing work and school obligations.

Many of the families in the district were already struggling before the pandemic hit: about 70% of students there are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

“We know that a lot of our students, once they get their working papers at 14, are quick to get out in the field,” said the 9th grade English teacher, who has been in the district for 14 years. “It’s very important for them financially to help support their families.”

Myers said, when in-person learning was shut down by the coronavirus, lots of students went from part-time to full-time work.

For teachers, that meant balancing their commitment to education with the knowledge that many students were unavailable for big stretches of the day. Some Norristown High School teachers offered live Google Hangout sessions, but students were not penalized if they did not attend. Work could be turned in at any time, and students were not allowed to fail solely based on their performance from mid-March through the end of the school year.

“We want to keep our school rigorous, and we want our kids to have the same education as everybody else,” Myers said. “But we also understand they have a lot of challenges that other districts don’t have.”

By mid-March, Gloria Lumbrano-Torres had already fallen behind on her school work after having an abortion. She then began missing class for doctor’s appointments, and it was hard to focus on school when she was there.

“My head was not in school most of the time,” she said. “I feel like I was thinking more about that situation than school. I just felt lost.”

Then, working six days a week made it feel impossible to make up the school work she had missed.

In Mid-May, Lumbrano-Torres got a headache, and then a fever. She had fallen sick with COVID-19. The illness left her bedridden, but only for a few days.

“It wasn’t that bad, honestly,” she said.

Lumbrano-Torres and Bailon said they think an estimated five employees of DeKalb Supermarket have gotten COVID-19. Reached by phone, the grocery store’s manager declined to comment.

Catching COVID-19 has been many essential workers’ greatest fear, but for Lumbrano-Torres it had a silver lining: the virus forced her to stay home from the supermarket, giving her time to catch up on her school work.

“I honestly think that if I hadn’t gotten sick…I wouldn’t [have been] able to graduate,” she said. “Because I was trying to catch up with my work.”

Lumbrano-Torres isn’t thrilled about her virtual graduation, scheduled for next week. But, she said, she is relieved to no longer have to juggle work and school, at least until she heads to Montgomery County Community College in the fall.

This summer she plans to keep working at the supermarket. Her first priority, she said, is saving for a car to have once she starts college.

After that, hopefully, a record player.

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