NABG Newsletter Issue 14: Young people have become America’s essential workers

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Women and girls of color typically shoulder the burden of more work in order to ensure the greater good for others. A pandemic brings this reality into stark relief. In a recent report, the data showed that 85% of nurses, 75% of primary caregivers, and 62% of minimum wage workers are women. However, often overlooked in the news coverage about essential workers during the pandemic is the role of young people, particularly youth of color. Young people are currently employed in restaurants, grocery stores, pharmacies, delivery services, park services, and in other industries, also putting them on the frontlines of the pandemic.

We want to uplift all of the work and sacrifices young people are experiencing, particularly Black girls. Whether it’s taking on longer shifts at work to make up for loss of income, taking care of family members while guardians are at work, or living in fear that they are possibly being exposed daily to COVID-19 in the home, youth are shouldering an immense amount of labor.

At Risk in their own Homes

Since the pandemic began, reports have emerged showing that women and Black and Latinx communities make up a disproportionate percentage of essential workers. Black folks make up 21% of the Postal Service staff and there are over 13,000 individuals on Temporary Protective Status from El Salvador, Haiti, and Honduras working in food services and manufacturing to keep this country functioning.

We’ve discussed that COVID-19 is ravaging Black and Latinx communities due to centuries of structural racism and that these populations are more likely to be at risk due to their employment. This places Black girls in increasingly vulnerable positions as they share homes with essential workers who are potentially exposed every day, or they themselves are working in high-risk jobs. Many youth of color have roles working at big-box retailers, as cashiers at grocery stores, and fulfilling online delivery orders, all while also being expected to be plugged in for remote learning.

Since many young people live in multigenerational households, the risk of transmission is higher for everyone involved when a parent or young person works outside the home. Of the 64 million Americans living in multigenerational homes, 27% are Black families. Too often, the families cannot socially distance from each other, which increases the stress and risks within the family. Black girls have even begun advocating for their parents who work in high hazard environments during this time, demanding that employers create better work conditions for their parents and provide hazard pay. The lack of protection offered to essential workers is an egregious and deadly miscarriage of justice as their families are the ones who will, and have, suffered.

Artwork by Aya Brown

Private Labor for the Public Good

In an interview, GGE youth participant Sue Suilla described being “Cooped up in the apartment, trying to do her schoolwork, take care of her 82-year-old grandmother and her godsister, even as she worries about her mother, a health aide at Mount Sinai Hospital.” Young people assume essential caregiving roles within the family, often without recognition and definitely without compensation. There is no clear end date for this pandemic, and experts predict an increase in anxiety, acute stress, and PTSD in young people, especially those who have had to take on additional roles. There is a lack of data on the impact of COVID-19 on young people, even though they are likely to be one of the hardest hit populations in regards to economic opportunities and social wellbeing.

Advocates and practitioners from the Why We Can’t Wait campaign hosted town halls with Black girls entitled Breaking the Silence, where one of the key messages that emerged was that girls of color, especially Black girls, are often presumed and considered “second parents.” This means they are expected to take on tremendous caregiving responsibilities in their families. The current pandemic has not improved this situation, but rather compounded it as young folks assist with homeschooling younger siblings, bathing, meal prepping, and household maintenance, all while managing their own coursework and worries.

We know that Black girls are the caregivers, the essential workers, and the survivors of health disparities, but we will ensure that they will never be ignored. They will need our support in the months and years to come. NABG demands that candidates prioritize federal funding for education and the work to end school pushout. We are working to ensure girls and youth of color don’t lose the crucial mental health and trauma-informed services they will desperately need.

Please support our work by tweeting at your representatives and asking them:

  • @USProgressives will you protect students across the country from austerity budgets? Maximize federal funding in “Stimulus 4” legislation including aid to state and local governments!

For Our Girls,

Toni Wilson & the #BlackGirls2020 Team

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Girls for Gender Equity (GGE) is an intergenerational organization committed to the physical, psychological, social, and economic development of girls and women