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Teens struggle to find work, independence in a summer defined by COVID-19

Gannett //July 2, 2020//

Teens struggle to find work, independence in a summer defined by COVID-19

Gannett //July 2, 2020//

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By Charisse Jones
USA Today

Vinny Zuehlsdorff got his CPR certification in January, eager to get a job as a lifeguard this summer so he could sock away money for college in the fall.

But with the pool closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, “the virus took that part away,” said Zuehlsdorff, 18, who will be attending The University of St. Thomas, which has campuses in St. Paul and Minneapolis. Now he’s earning a little cash mowing lawns for his grandfather’s property management business while he continues to search for a full-time job.

Difficulty finding work is yet another reminder of how the coronavirus has upended nearly every aspect of life. 

“It’s like a dream I just want to wake up from,” said Zuehlsdorff, who lives in Lakeville, Minn. “Having my senior season of lacrosse canceled, not knowing when my last day of school was. And now it’s affecting what I do in the summer. It just feels really surreal.”

Pools are closed. Stores are shuttered. Restaurants are tentatively reopening.

This is a summer interrupted for many teenagers, who are finding shops, dining spots, and recreational areas where they’d typically get jobs closed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

And even as some retailers reopen, Target and CVS have temporarily closed some stores amid nationwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, who died in the custody of Minneapolis police.

The summer months follow a spring that saw unemployment soar to 13.3% in May, the highest since the Great Depression. Among those out of work were 30% of young people between the ages of 16 and 19, a record high.

Amani Cistrunk said finding a summer job was harder than she thought. (Photo/Amani Cistrunk)

Some teens who’ve been able to find summer jobs worry about carrying the coronavirus home to their families. Others continue to search for work though they’re far from certain they’ll find anything. 

“I’m really worried about (whether) I’m going to be able to make it through the school year with enough money because I don’t want to rely on my parents too much,” says Noah VandeWater, 18, of Cranberry Township, Pa.

Amani Cistrunk, 17, was hoping to work over the summer to start saving for her freshman year of college. “I heard books are going to be expensive,”  she said. She applied to several customer service jobs in Lauderdale County, Miss., but hasn’t gotten a single call back.

“If I don’t find one this summer, I’ll have to just keep looking,” the high school senior said. Otherwise, she’s banking on a band scholarship and getting help from her family to help with college costs.

Slightly fewer than a third of U.S. teenagers had a summer job in 2019, down from nearly half two decades ago, Labor Department figures show. A Pew Research study found there are fewer low-skilled, entry-level jobs such as sales clerks. And more teens enroll in summer school, do volunteer work or take unpaid internships over the summer.

Still, a summer job remains a rite of passage for many teens and can provide an entrée to a future career. It also can teach money management, build self-confidence and a sense of responsibility, and impart basic work skills such as interviewing and working with colleagues, according to the Center for Work Ethic Development.

‘You never know who has it’

During the past few summers, VandeWater worked busing tables at Olive Garden and staffing the concessions stand at the local pool.

But this year, after filling out roughly a dozen applications for retail jobs on the work search site, he’s gotten only one response. It simply directed him to apply again, on the store’s website. 

During the past few summers, Noah VandeWater, 18, worked at Olive Garden and staffing the concessions stand at the local pool. But this year, after filling out roughly a dozen applications for retail jobs, heƒ??s gotten nowhere. (Photo/Jeff Swensen for USA Today)“It’s been hard to find a job … a lot of stores being closed down,” says VandeWater who will be attending Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pa., this fall. “I’ve applied to some … twice, and I haven’t heard back.’

VandeWater has a lacrosse scholarship to cover tuition, but he wants to earn his own spending money for his freshman year. He even tried delivering for DoorDash, a service that became a go-to for many Americans during the height of the pandemic when many were discouraged from leaving home.

“But there’s so many people doing DoorDash right now … I couldn’t get any orders,” he says. “I tried three times and I couldn’t get any money … So I quit.”

VandeWater admits that he does worry about the possibility of catching coronavirus if he does finally find a job.

“You never know who has it,” he says. “You have to be careful.”

But he remains eager to work. “I’m going to start looking at landscaping jobs,” he says.

No job, and no license

Clara Zuehlsdorff, 16, was looking forward to working this summer at the same restaurant where her mother is a hostess.

“It would have been my first job,” she says. Because of COVID-19, the location is closed and it’s reopening is unclear.

As she prepares to go into the 11th grade, her financial goals are a little different from those of her brother Vinny, whose aim is to earn money for college.  

“‘I mostly just wanted it to have my own money so I wouldn’t have to ask my parents,” Clara says, “like I wanted to be able to go out to eat more often. And I want to buy a nice skateboard.”

She was also looking forward to getting her driver’s license. 

“I was hoping to get it before summer ended so I could drive myself to school next year,” she says, “and so I could also get a job, and transportation would be easier for my family.”

But the Department of Motor Vehicles office closed because of the coronavirus outbreak, and her driving test appointment was canceled.

Still, she’s not giving up on finding work. She plans to apply at Chipotle or a fast-food restaurant. But she realizes there are obstacles.

“I do think it may be a little bit difficult because of what’s been going on with the virus and all the protests.”

Krishna Potaraju (left) who recently got a summer job working at The Village Bakery, cuts flowers for cake director Nikki Ortega in Houston on June 5. (Photo/Thomas B. Shea for USA Today)

Breaking quarantine to work

Krishna Potaraju, 16, and his mother, Donna Beveriege, have been cautious since the coronavirus began to spread, hunkering down in their Houston home starting in mid-March.

A health scare increased their concern. Beveriege was hospitalized with acute respiratory distress syndrome and pneumonia nearly three years ago.

“I’m not worried so much about myself,” Potaraju says, adding that he plays sports and is in good health. “It’s just if I bring it home to my mom … I’m pretty worried about that.”

But when he told his mother that he wanted new clothes and a car, she said that he needed to get a job. She found out about a position at a local bakery, Potaraju applied, and now he’s spending six hours a day washing dishes, cutting cookies and pulling out cupcakes for customers.

His first job has taught him some unexpected lessons.

“I’ve got to say, I thought I was going to make like $100 dollars in a day,” he says, adding that he earns $9 an hour. “I didn’t realize how much they would take away in taxes and how long six hours really feels like.”

He’s also seeing his hours pared back as the bakery takes on more employees.

But with most gyms closed, and his mother still reluctant for him to socialize in the midst of a pandemic, Potaraju’s job is one certainty in a summer full of unknowns.

“Most likely I’ll go to work all day,” he says, “and come home and rest afterward and eat dinner with my mom.” 

This story is the first in an occasional series about workers, families and business owners struggling to cope with the coronavirus pandemic in the summer of 2020.

Dalvin Brown and Paul Davidson contributed to this report. Follow Charisse Jones on Twitter @charissejones.