On weekdays after remote school ends, Maria, a senior at Chicago’s Ogden International High School, gets picked up from her Little Village apartment on the Southwest Side to go to a food processing plant to work an evening shift.
From 5 p.m. until 1 a.m., she makes one frozen sausage-and-cheese sandwich after another.
“It’s really tiring because we have to stand all day and it’s all really cold,” the 17-year-old said. She asked not to use her real name to protect her privacy.
Maria took the job to help her mom, who is undocumented and has found little work cleaning houses and offices since the pandemic started. Maria makes about $10 an hour.
Maria mostly gets straight A’s at school and has already been accepted to several universities. But she says remote learning alone is difficult — and having to work makes it that much harder.
“Sometimes I’ll be so tired and all I want to do is sleep and all I really need is sleep,” Maria said. “I just don’t do my school work. I’ll log into a meeting and then I’ll go to sleep.”
Maria is part of a new group entering the Chicago workforce: teens stepping in to help family members struggling during the pandemic. In interviews, Chicago public high schools staff told WBEZ they’ve seen an increase in the number of students, primarily on the South and West sides, who are now working, oftentimes during online classes and late into the evening.
It’s a big help to their families, but it’s putting these students at risk of not graduating, school staff say.
“Chicago Public Schools has very specific graduation requirements that if you miss even one, [even] if it’s PE class, and you don’t have the satisfaction for graduation requirements, you do not get that diploma,” said Caitlin McGarry, a social worker at Al Raby High School on the West Side.
Some students prioritize work over school
After massive job losses and layoffs in Illinois due the pandemic, many teens are taking advantage of the holiday season and all the packages that need to be delivered. UPS is among the few companies actively hiring. Its “now hiring” signs are in key locations on the West Side. Staff at one local school, Al Raby High School, said many of his students have taken notice and gotten UPS jobs.
Outside a UPS facility near Jefferson Avenue and Roosevelt Road, high school students from several Chicago public schools go in and out in the afternoons and late in the evening. Those willing to share their experiences asked to remain anonymous out of fear of losing their jobs. They unload trucks, sort packages and watch for package jams. They say they make around $14.50 an hour.
A junior at Hyde Park Academy High School said she gets all her work done either after work or during school. “I’ll be in class while I am on the bus,” she said.
A sophomore at Orr Academy High School said sometimes she starts work as early as noon. That means she sometimes misses her physical education class and Spanish.
Other adults getting off their long shifts at UPS say they also have seen an increase in young people working there. Teens are also popping up at fast food restaurants and factories.
“I think it has to do especially with low-income families that aren’t receiving assistance and are at risk of eviction and they are just taking on the burden so that way they don’t become homeless,” said one woman outside UPS who also feared being identified.
At Al Raby High School, Dean DeMarco Mosby said when students don’t show up for class or turn in their work, he checks in on them and calls their parents. One time, when a junior who usually does well was suddenly failing a class, her mom told Mosby the girl was working overnights.
Mosby was shocked: “Oh my goodness” he said. “Overnight, a junior and 17 in high school?”
He said it’s hard to get students to pick school over work — especially when families are struggling.
“This puts us in a weird situation, because this isn’t something that we really dealt with before,” Mosby said. “Before we went to remote learning, students weren’t leaving school and this actually becomes a discipline issue. If a kid walks out of the classroom, that’s a discipline concern.”
In a remote world, it is hard to bring students back on track. CPS requires attendance for high school students be taken each period. But if students turn off their cameras during class, it’s hard for teachers to know if they are really there.
Mosby wonders if the company knows this is an issue. In a statement, a UPS official said the company tries to place high school students in the evening shifts and would be open to discussing a further solution with school officials.
McGarry and Mosby worry that if students fall behind academically, it will be much harder for some of them to get back on track and find the support they’ll need to graduate.
“Once you are out of the system, you are an adult, you don’t have a network of adults who are there to meet with you, to walk you through things, to explain things, to spend time with you, to listen to you,” McGarry said.
The pandemic has made matters worse for families that were already living in precarious situations.
Around the time the pandemic began, Maria’s mom walked out of an abusive relationship. They moved in with five other relatives in a two-bedroom apartment. They’ve been there ever since.
From the living room where she sleeps, Maria talks about feeling lonely and the emotional toll of not seeing her friends. She says it’s hard to stay motivated to do school work and find the extra strength to keep her grades up. Painting helps her cope. She is talented and enjoys being part of an after-school art program that teaches her new techniques.
Maria is glad she can help her mom. She’s now working as much as five days a week, including both weekend days, while also going to school. She makes around $10 an hour, she said, and most of her paycheck goes to her mom. But she dreads going to the processing plant where she has been harassed and humiliated.
Maria wrote her college essay about her experiences working these last six months.
“I work as if my limbs don’t really belong to me,” she wrote. “The air is constantly cold. Two industrial cotton gloves at each hand. The machine gets a loud thunderous snap and we like ants begin loading at full swing. I shiver as I push my hands forward. The clock jammed to make time move slowly. Speeds up at lunch time.”
Maria tries not to get too down about her overall high school experience, She is just dealing with what’s in front of her. She had no other choice, she said.
“I try to be happy, and I try to be optimistic because sometimes I think [other] people could have it worse,” Maria said. “I feel like there is no time for me to feel down.”