by Jenny Smedra
Getting your first summer job was always a rite of passage in my family. Then again, my siblings and I never had to cope with social distancing concerns during a pandemic. We are now in an unusual predicament and are uncertain what the best decision is. Although many businesses are actively seeking help, is it safe for teenagers to find a summer job right now?
How the Pandemic Has Affected Summer Break
Both students and teachers alike look forward to summer vacation. As a child, I spent my days playing with friends, riding bikes around the neighborhood, or finding relief from the heat at the nearest pool. It was a time to enjoy freedom from studying and make memories with friends. As I got older and outgrew these activities, it became a time to find a summer job and earn some cash.
However, now that school’s out, it definitely feels different from the summer breaks I remember as a child. Plenty of people are out and about, yet parks, pools, and local sports fields remain relatively empty. There is no longer a sense of community, just individuals trying to survive. It almost feels as if people are hesitant to interact with each other or even go outside anymore. Furthermore, when you do venture into public, all I see now are vacant stores and help wanted signs.
While I understand how we got here, it doesn’t make it any easier to watch. Although we want to keep everyone safe, I am also afraid that my nieces will miss out on certain opportunities and experiences that meant so much to me. One of these was gaining independence and financial responsibility through my summer job. Not only did it provide fundamental lessons in managing my money, but also served as the primary source for my college fund. Although she does not have an immediate need for spending cash, she is only two years from graduation and the impending costs of college tuition.
Adjusting to a Summer Job in the New Normal
As things slowly start to normalize and people trickle back to regular activities, my family has found different ways to adjust to this ‘new normal.’ When the pandemic first broke and was spreading like wildfire, we all agreed to some extreme measures to reduce our risk of exposure. My parents gave up their volunteer work, the girls switched to remote learning, and I began working from home. Since this wasn’t an option for my niece, she gave up her waitressing job in a local cafe.
Now, almost a year later, local numbers seem to be on the decline and there is hope. We have found ways to enjoy regular activities while limiting our risk of exposure. Furthermore, all the adults in our family have received their vaccines. However, both girls decided to wait to get theirs until we know more about how it affects children. Although we still practice all the same safety measures in public (wearing masks, washing our hands, maintaining social distancing), I think we all have a little more peace of mind.
There has been a general consensus among everyone until the question of a summer job came up. When the owner of the cafe contacted her about coming back, everyone had differing opinions. My mom is in full support since she feels the most vulnerable people are protected against the virus. Her younger sister thinks she should find another job with less social interaction. My dad and I feel it should be her choice, but would be more comfortable if she got her vaccine before returning to work.
My niece remains conflicted. On the one hand, she misses her job and coworkers. It paid very well and she truly enjoyed the social interactions with customers. She was also able to save a lot of money and maintain reduced hours during the school year. It provided the perfect balance of flexibility and pay that most teenage jobs cannot.
However, since many of the customers do not believe COVID-19 is as serious as the CDC has made it out to be, they don’t follow safety measures as strictly as we do. In fact, many customers and most of the staff have already contracted the virus at some point. It makes her nervous returning to an environment where she will come into contact with dozens more people every shift. In her mind, she has to decide whether the need to pay for college outweighs the risk of exposing herself and her family to the virus.
Finding the Middle Ground and the Best Summer Job
Our family culture has evolved into one where all opinions matter and are voiced. However, the girls understand that my parents will have final word since they have a legal responsibility for their well-being. This situation feels slightly different though. We all agree that safety is important, be we also want to allow them some room to make decisions for themselves and establish their independence.
There have been a few promising suggestions, but each come with their own drawbacks. First, she could receive her vaccine and return to work. While it will not completely protect her from the virus, it would greatly reduce her risk of contracting it or carrying it home. Second, she could look for another job that allows her to work from home or away from the general public. While it provides more safety through social distancing, we don’t know if a new employer will be as flexible with her school schedule in the fall. Third, she could remain unemployed and become more aggressive in looking for scholarships and financial aid opportunities. However, there are no guarantees she will receive any assistance.
So, here we are facing another huge decision that affects everyone in our household. Additionally, we are in unfamiliar territory as we navigate issues and cope with life during a pandemic. How have you and your families dealt with the issue of summer jobs with your kids? While both sides have valid points, what is the middle ground here?
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Jenny Smedra is an avid world traveler, ESL teacher, former archaeologist, and freelance writer. Choosing a life abroad had strengthened her commitment to finding ways to bring people together across language and cultural barriers. While most of her time is dedicated to either working with children, she also enjoys good friends, good food, and new adventures.