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Teens taking jobs to help parents struggling in the pandemic

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Across the country, young people are taking jobs to help their families make ends meet in the pandemic. For some, that has meant balancing an exhausting load between remote school and work. Meg Oliver spoke to two teens on opposite sides of the country about the toll it's taking on them.

Video Transcript

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ANTHONY MASON: Across the country, many young people are taking jobs to help their families make ends meet. Since the pandemic started, an estimated 3 million students have not attended virtual or in-person classes. For some, that's because they're now working.

Meg Oliver is outside a high school in Newark, New Jersey with more on teenagers balancing school and work. Meg, good morning.

MEG OLIVER: Anthony, good morning. We spoke with two students, one from here at Arts High School in Newark, New Jersey, and the other in Los Angeles. Both told us, when the pandemic hit, they felt the pressure to step in and help their families. One expert told us their stories are not unusual.

Several days a week, Melody Videl gets a ride to the Mills at Jersey Gardens Mall, where she works at the bakery chain Cinnabon. In the fall, the high school senior took the job to help her mom financially.

What was your biggest fear?

MELODY VIDEL: My biggest fear was being homeless.

MEG OLIVER: But trying to balance remote learning and work is taking a toll on the 18-year-old.

How overwhelming is this?

MELODY VIDEL: It's overwhelming, overwhelmingly stressful. I find it hard to live sometimes.

MEG OLIVER: You find it hard to live sometimes?

MELODY VIDEL: Yes because of the stress. Maria Medina is Melody's mother. She's a party entertainer and does face and body painting.

MEG OLIVER: How hard has this last year been financially for you?

MARIA MEDINA: Phew, I watched a career that I had been working on for 12 years go completely dead.

MEG OLIVER: Would you be able to make ends meet without her helping?

MARIA MEDINA: Yes and no. I mean, I can figure-- I can manage things. I've been doing it for years. But her help has been a blessing.

MEG OLIVER: In the US, around 17 and 1/2 million young people between 16 and 24 are employed, and many to help their families get by. 17-year-old Johanna Lopez is one of them.

Why did you need this job?

JOHANNA LOPEZ: I wanted to help my mom because she's a struggling single mom.

MEG OLIVER: The high school senior from Los Angeles juggles an exhausting load, all remote school during the day. And several days a week, she works at a fast food restaurant until midnight. Her mother was laid off because of COVID.

JOHANNA LOPEZ: And that's when I was like, OK, now it's time to actually step up because I have a little brother.

MEG OLIVER: Lopez brings in about $800 a month and gives $500 to her mom for rent and other bills.

You're doing a great thing for your mom. Are you worried about your mom?

JOHANNA LOPEZ: Not really. I know that she's a strong woman.

MEG OLIVER: This has got to be overwhelming for you. You're only 17 years old.

JOHANNA LOPEZ: I try to keep a positive attitude for her.

MEG OLIVER: Why did you want to share your story?

JOHANNA LOPEZ: I want other people to see that they're not the only ones that struggle.

MEG OLIVER: Are you seeing more high school students trying to bring home a paycheck?

ELMER ROLDAN: Absolutely. Young people are under incredible pressure to contribute to the finances in the home.

MEG OLIVER: Elmer Roldan is the executive director of Communities and Schools of Los Angeles. His organization works with Lopez and hundreds of other students and their families to help provide social, emotional, academic, and even financial support to keep kids in school.

What do you think will happen now that some of these high schools will start to reopen after spring break, and you have students trying to juggle school and jobs?

ELMER ROLDAN: Well, I think that it's going to put both the schools and the students in a very difficult place. I think it's going to force students to have to pick between their education and bringing home that income.

MEG OLIVER: Roldan says his organization tries to encourage young people to focus on a long-term vision for themselves, like higher education.

ELMER ROLDAN: Certainly, the income that they're bringing in right now is a huge lifeline for their families. And all jobs are respectable. But we also know that the potential is there for them to do a lot more.

MEG OLIVER: For Melody, just the thought of doing more is keeping her afloat. She hopes to go to college next year.

You have something to look forward to?

MELODY VIDEL: Yeah, I do.

MEG OLIVER: You're helping your family get by, pay the rent, make sure that the electrical gets paid. How does that make you feel?

MELODY VIDEL: It makes me feel happy. Makes me feel like maybe we're not going to be homeless. It's so scary to think about that.

MEG OLIVER: So much pressure. But they both have so much potential. Melody tells us she wants to study graphic design at a community college next year. And Johanna, the student out in Los Angeles, also plans to go to college. She wants to be a music therapist. Tony?

TONY DOKOUPIL: Meg, thank you very much. It's a reminder that the child tax credit can help struggling parents like that, so maybe their kids don't have to choose between school and that job to support the family.

ANTHONY MASON: Boy, you feel for Melody and Johanna, yeah.

GAYLE KING: I was just going to say, but in the meantime, to hear Melody say, sometimes I don't want to live just gave me chills. You got to hang in there, Melody because we all know it's true. It does get better. But when you're in it, it must seem extremely overwhelming.

And Johanna saying, no, she doesn't worry about her mother as tears are streaming--

ANTHONY MASON: Down her face.

GAYLE KING: I never thought of that aspect of the layers of COVID and the damage that it causes. The teens feel that--

ANTHONY MASON: The degree to which it has reverberated, all so far. You're looking at their kids worrying about their parents and worrying, as Melody says, about being homeless.

TONY DOKOUPIL: These kids have their antenna up. They're picking up what's going on in the house. They know. They absorb it. All right, Meg, thank you very much. It's a powerful story.