COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the nation’s employment landscape, and young people are at particular risk. They’re often the first to be let go, the last to be hired, and major employers of young people—including the food service and hospitality industries—are significantly impacted by the pandemic. The YES Project has been speaking with young people representing various stages of education and employment to learn firsthand about their job experiences during COVID-19 and their advice for how decision makers can support them at this unprecedented time.
Here are highlights from our conversation with Kat B., age 21, from Springfield, Missouri. Kat is a new mother who was working in the food service industry to support her family at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Kat is a participant of I Pour Life, which provides coaching and support for youth currently or formerly in foster care. Below, Kat reflects on her experience being furloughed due to the pandemic, applying for unemployment, navigating work and school as a new mother, and the importance of supportive employers during this time.
My first job was at Starbucks. I was in transitional living at the time, which is like a second step if you’re in foster care or state custody. I was in a residential group home, and the goal was to eventually be transitioned into an apartment. Once I got my high school equivalency diploma, I knew that I needed to start working so I could sustain myself and begin thinking about going back to school and moving on to my next step. At Starbucks, I learned a lot about the basics of working–getting up in the morning, time management, saving money–things that aren’t necessarily taught in school. But I always knew I wanted more.
Eventually, I started school at Missouri Southern State University. I completed one semester, and then realized that it’s really hard to maintain a job, go to school, and live on my own. I didn’t have a good support system close by, I was kind of thrown out into it all. After that semester at Missouri Southern, I went back to working in a restaurant.
At the beginning, I was furloughed for two weeks. This meant two weeks without pay, since as a server, most of my income came from tips. My employer essentially said, “Go file for unemployment, good luck to you.” I had just returned from maternity leave when everything closed down—I had been back at work for just under a month. Additionally, I had just decided to go back to school when the pandemic hit, so a lot of things were happening at once.
When things started opening back up, it was like I had to choose: go back to school and finish my degree, or go to work and support myself and my family. So many people were losing their jobs, I was losing income, and it was a wake-up call. I was reminded that I want to pursue a long-term career, especially because when everything closed down I felt so disposable.
It was a lot. They wanted a ton of information, and after all the time it took to fill it out, I was told I didn’t qualify because I hadn’t been working that job for at least a year. (I had been there about 8 months.) I imagine a lot of young people weren’t eligible since we’re less likely to have worked for more than a year.
I was only able to take two weeks off after having my baby. After two weeks, I decided to go back and work the evening shift while my son's dad worked during the day. A lot of people would have assumed that I got to spend the first 6-8 weeks with my baby at home, but that wasn’t the case.
These past few months have taught me that I'm capable of more than I thought. I’ve always told myself that I’m young and that I can work at a restaurant because that’s what I know, but I'm not the same 16-year-old that went into the workforce. I don’t have to limit myself to entry-level roles. I’ve forced myself to look into jobs that I didn't previously consider because I felt like I was too young or I wasn’t capable.
I re-enrolled in school in May, am majoring in business, and am trying to stay in jobs that give me business experience. Currently, I work in the Business Development Center at Youngblood Motors, where I can apply some of the concepts I’m learning about in school. I would like to own my own coffee shop one day—and my first job was at Starbucks, so it’s all full circle.
Don't limit yourself. I'm not saying that certain jobs are bad–anything that puts food on the table is a good job–but don't limit yourself because you think only certain places will hire you, or because that’s all you know. Have faith in yourself and know that you can always build up skills at a job to do more in the future.
Check in on your employees. Don't make anybody feel like they're not good enough or that they’re not appreciated, because if you are at work right now, you are at risk. It doesn't matter if you're in healthcare or you're working at McDonald's or Dollar Tree or Walmart – all of these people are at risk, so nobody should be treated less than the other.