BEHIND OUR MASKS

Uncovering pandemic life for California’s young adults

Illustration: Ulonie Garza

Intro

We are young Californians. COVID has taken over our life, and life choices. Behind our masks, our families changed; our paths changed; our futures changed. These are our stories of a year of struggle and finding our way forward.

COACHELLA, Calif.

Organizing From Home: Pandemic Forces Activists to Adjust

Olivia Rodriguez

Coachella Unincorporated

The COVID-19 pandemic is hurting young workers in California.
Photo: Bryan Mendez/Coachella Unincorporated

Marco Romero is no stranger to activism. Since middle school, he’s been on the front lines – doing door-to-door canvassing – connecting residents in the Eastern Coachella Valley with resources they need.

But when the pandemic hit last year, the state’s shelter-in-place orders and social distancing guidelines, changed how Romero communicated with residents in his community, but it didn’t alter his mission. Instead of meeting face-to-face, he relied on phone banking. Working with Alianza, a local organization in Eastern Coachella Valley, he wanted to find ways to support residents who might be disproportionately affected by COVID-19.   

“I want to see a change in these rural areas that I live in. [I want to] help my parents. They get paid below minimum wage. They came from Mexico — they came to see the American dream, but I don't know how that American dream looks like now.”

He admits there are a few challenges to remote activism.

“At home, you don't get that privacy — my family is here. And when you’re at the office, you can focus on making phone calls because everyone around you is doing the same,” he said. “You also don’t get to meet people in person [since] everything is online.”

Romero isn’t alone as many youth activists have been instrumental in connecting community members to resources during the pandemic in the Eastern Coachella Valley. 

“The youth are bilingual; that's something really important to highlight,” said Patricia Carillo, project manager for Alianza. “I would say more than 50% of the calls have been in Spanish. It’s really great to see the students not only being able to work with English community members but Spanish community members, and how committed they are to the work that they do.”

Young adults in the Eastern Coachella Valley have been instrumental in reaching over 73,000 community members for efforts tied to Census and voting outreach, food assistance and other COVID-19 educational information, Carillo said. Specifically, they’ve connected over 1,300 families throughout the Coachella Valley to economic relief funds in efforts organized by Alianza, she said.

“When I was doing the calls, community members shared with me that they’re farmworkers who had just lost their jobs, tested positive for COVID, some parents had to stay home to take care of their kids because of distance learning, and some didn’t have money to cover their finances,” Romero said. “They would call back and say, ‘Gracias, porque necesitaba este dinero’ (Thank you, I needed the money). They're overwhelmed.”

Carrillo says that the pandemic has amplified the need for better Wi-Fi connectivity in rural areas.

“Many of the youth had to rely on hotspots to be able to continue the work with phone banking,” she said. “Connectivity issues have been very concerning for the youth that have to rely on hotspots or go to one of their family member’s homes to be able to connect and do the work from there.”

But Wi-Fi is just another layer of accessibility issues that people face, Romero said. 

“Before COVID-19, I would gather a group of friends in my car and give them a ride,” he said. “We canvassed all throughout the ECV area. I would really like to see youth have more Wi-Fi, computers, stuff like that to be able to join community events. More people can be more involved if Wi-Fi is not an issue. Since everything is through Zoom, you can just click and join.” 

Despite his passion, Romero, a freshman at San Jose State University, had to take a brief break to concentrate on school. But he has big plans for the future. After graduation, Romero plans to continue organizing in the Eastern Coachella Valley. 

“There's a lot of injustices around the world. I love to do this work and motivate other youth to improve their community as well,” he said.

LOS ANGELES, Calif.

Stuck in the Digital Divide

Jennifer Garcia

Boyle Heights Beat

The COVID-19 pandemic is hurting young workers in California.
Photo: Jacqueline Ramirez/Boyle Heights Beat

There are nine of us living in a two-bedroom apartment near MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. In total, it’s five adults and four children. I sleep in the living room, which is next to the kitchen, with my 14-year-old sister. Three of us are in school, which during quarantine means learning online.

To say it’s difficult to be in school is an understatement. Here’s what it’s like:

During the day, my brother, a fourth-grader, and my sister, an eighth-grader, use the bedrooms to take their classes. While my parents and uncle are at work, my aunt takes care of her one-year-old daughter and my two-year-old brother in the living room. The house is loud, and I usually have to leave to find a quiet place to connect to the internet.

I returned to college last fall after taking a few years off to work. I’m 22-years-old, and it’s my first year at Los Angeles City College. I’m majoring in political science and hope to go to law school someday. While I took a break from school for almost two years, I decided to take 13 units this semester and become a full-time student again. I thought, mistakenly, that I would have more time to study because of the pandemic.

“Since there’s nowhere for me to work at home, I have to look elsewhere. I go to a park and just cross my fingers that I can get a good hot spot on my phone. I stay up late and do my homework when everyone in the house has gone to bed. ”

Before restaurants shut down again in November, I relied on coffee shops to connect to Zoom. I used Yelp to narrow down my decisions, to find out whether there was outdoor dining and a stable Wi-Fi connection. For months, I’ve struggled to find enough places to study because Los Angeles County only allowed outdoor seating. Coffee shops around Los Angeles are filled with students just like me. Spotty internet at the cafés is a constant issue and often affects my classes. My grades are suffering. Not to mention how much money I spend on coffee or food when I sit down to take a class or do homework. With limited seating available, it is hard to get away without buying something to eat.

The situation keeps getting worse and there’s not much of an end in sight, with winter and spring sessions still scheduled to be online. All I can do is just keep pushing forward and hope for the best.

OAKLAND, Calif.

'Everything's Just Up in the Air' Pandemic Stalls Football Season and Dreams

Luis Flores

YR Media

After sustaining injuries during the 2019 football season, Joseph Christensen expected 2020 to be his breakout year. But then COVID-19 hit and the Laney College football season was delayed. For Christensen, it means his dreams of obtaining a Division I scholarship are on hold.

OAKLAND, Calif.

Pandemic Took Young People’s Jobs, and Maybe Their Lifespans Too

Lucy Barnum

YR Media

The COVID-19 pandemic is hurting young workers in California.
Photo: RichVintage/Getty Images

Adrianne Ramsey, 25, remembers the Thursday afternoon her employer announced they would close. She had worked as a field trip explainer at the Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco, since 2018. She said the museum hadn’t unexpectedly closed its doors for an extended time since 9/11.

“I honestly wasn't surprised when (that) happened,” she said of the museum’s closure last March. “It was just kind of crazy.”

By May, the Exploratorium decided not to renew her contract, and Ramsey became one of the millions of Americans who lost their job due to the pandemic. Since she lost her job, Ramsey’s been living with family and working on independent projects, but she still doesn’t have full-time employment.

“It's definitely been tough,” she said. “I mean, if I didn't have my projects, I don't think I'd be sane right now.”

“The more frustrating thing is it's been (several) months, and I just feel like we've made very little progress as a country because we don't have a nationwide plan,” she continued. “It's just kind of depressing … just haphazard and pathetic.”

In December, California’s unemployment rate spiked to 9%, up from 3.9% the year before. The San Francisco Bay Area is far from immune: the Oakland-Berkeley-Hayward metropolitan area reported a 7.7% unemployment rate in December compared to 2.6% a year ago.

“The more frustrating thing is it's been (several) months, and I just feel like we've made very little progress as a country because we don't have a nationwide plan. It's just kind of depressing ... just haphazard and pathetic.”

According to Till von Wachter, an economics professor at UCLA and faculty director of the California Policy Lab, industries that disproportionately employ young people, such as accommodation and food services, retail, and arts, entertainment and recreation, have been hit hardest by the pandemic.

“COVID-19 has made certain types of activities much more dangerous than they were before, while others have remained relatively safe,” von Wachter said. “Many activities involving face-to-face contact with others or gathering in larger groups, also tend to employ younger workers … Black workers [and women have also] been hit exceptionally hard during the crisis.”

He estimates the COVID-19 crisis could lead to a loss of over $2 trillion in lifetime earnings and 23 million work years across the U.S. because losing one’s job cuts an average of 1.5 years off a worker’s lifespan.

While it’s been months since the pandemic began, many young adults who lost their jobs due to COVID-19 are still struggling to regain their footing.

San Francisco resident Laura Fernandez, 23, said applying for jobs was the most challenging part of being unemployed during the pandemic. When she was laid off from her job at an after-school program in August, she found many of the jobs she was interested in were either on hiatus or delayed in reviewing applications. Some employers took weeks to respond. She expected to dip into her savings while looking for work — but still, she said, it’s stressful to watch as her “savings get lower each time.”

After scouring LinkedIn and Indeed for months — and several stressful Zoom interviews— Fernandez found a part-time job at a Bay Area radio station. She’s returned to her job at the school as-needed but is still looking for a third job to make ends meet.

“It's been really stressful,” she said. “I knew that I still didn't have something solid … Once you get out of college, you're expecting to hopefully be able to land a full-time job soon, you know? So, it was hard.”

“Some moments of hope were just knowing that I and my family have remained healthy and that this too shall pass.”

Being unemployed in any circumstances can be mentally taxing, but Fernandez and Ramsey said the pandemic had taken an additional toll on their mental health. Both of them said it’s easy to feel down right now, mostly because the pandemic has curbed coping mechanisms like traveling and spending time with others.

But both have found ways to relieve stress. Fernandez spends time with family and has returned to hobbies like painting, video editing and photography. She’s been taking advantage of this time by going on hikes and bonding with her roommates.

Ramsey said she has tried to keep busy with independent projects while also trying to keep her loved ones safe.

“Some moments of hope were just knowing that I and my family have remained healthy and that this too shall pass,” Ramsey said.

COACHELLA, Calif.

‘We Gotta Do Both’ Balancing School, Farm Work in Coachella Valley

Olivia Rodriguez and Bryan Mendez

Coachella Unincorporated

The pandemic has forced many young adults to pick up a job while juggling online college classes. What that looks like for Eduardo Jaime: working part-time in the fields while navigating his third year at Cal State San Bernardino.

LOS ANGELES, Calif.

No Easy Choices: Stay in School or Pay the Rent?

Jennifer López

Boyle Heights Beat

Profile of a college student who has dropped to part-time to work and help support family who was affected by COVID, both virus itself and reduced work hours of parent; Struggling with having to work and not doing well with virtual classes; deciding whether to take a semester off or drop to a part-time student.
Photo: Jacqueline Ramirez/Boyle Heights Beat

When 20-year-old Saul Soto decided to commit to community college last year, he never imagined there would be an international pandemic or that his mother, the family’s main source of income, would have her hours at work cut in half.

Soto’s mother, Araceli, is a single mom, waits tables at a local restaurant. When restaurants shut down in the spring, so did her work. Even when they reopened, her hours weren’t back to where they were before the pandemic. When restaurants closed again in November, open only for takeout and deliveries, her hours were reduced yet again.

Since the pandemic began, the family has struggled to make ends meet and disagree on what is most important. Soto thinks he should leave school entirely, while his mother wants him to continue with his studies. At the same time, all of Soto’s classes at East Los Angeles College (ELAC) are online and he’s finding it difficult to learn and stay motivated. Like many students in California, Soto struggles with a parent losing their job, a family member testing positive for COVID-19, the inability to pay rent and the possibility of losing their home.

“We’re not in a place where we can say we have security,” Soto said. “I tell my mom we’re just one paycheck away from getting kicked out.”

Many students like Soto have had to decide whether or not to continue in school due to the pandemic. Across the country, community colleges saw the steepest decline in freshman enrollment last fall with an 18% drop compared to 2019, according to a national survey. The survey, by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, found that students of underrepresented minorities and low-income students have seen the largest decreases.

California is no exception. In November, California Community College Vice Chancellor Lizette Navarette told the State Assembly that community college students had been the hardest hit in all of higher education — with a preliminary survey showing fall enrollment down 7% and full-time enrollment down 10%.

“Low income and older students were more likely to pause education for fall due to interruptions in income,” Navarette told committee members.

A COVID-19 student survey by the California Student Aid Commission of nearly 76,000 students found that 71% of college students reported a decrease in income due to the pandemic. Out of the students who participated in the survey, 46% said they experienced a change in their living situation. Rates were highest among non-white students.

Saul Soto, a student at East Los Angeles College

“I need to work to make sure I’m able to provide for my family. It’s pushing me away from my education right now. As a man in the house, I need to help out.”

Soto says since the pandemic, he’s felt pressure to drop out of school and concentrate on working and helping his mother. Fall semester, he juggled five classes and 20- to 30-hour work weeks — trying to help his family out financially while still earning enough credits to eventually transfer to a four-year college.

On a typical day without classes, he works a six-hour shift at a coffee shop in Huntington Park, about six miles from his East Los Angeles home. Before the pandemic, Soto says he worked to have money to go out on the weekends, but now things have changed.

“I need to work to make sure I’m able to provide for my family,” he said. “It’s pushing me away from my education right now. As a man in the house, I need to help out.”

Eileen Le, one of Soto’s professors at ELAC, says she notices a shift happening in some of her classes. While her sociology classes typically have more women than men, she says she sees fewer male students in her Zoom lectures. Le believes many may be choosing employment over education, especially during the pandemic.

“The economic downturn post-COVID speaks to the immediacy of young men mostly, but women too, to hold school off and bring some money home,” Le said.

Meanwhile, Araceli Soto is worried about her son dropping out of college. She wants him to stay in school and work towards his degree despite their financial hardship.

“This pandemic will pass at some point, and if you’re prepared, it will be easier to find another job where you are paid more based on your academic level,” she said.

Her instinct is good. Nationally, the overall dropout rate for undergraduate college students is 40%, with approximately 30% of college freshmen dropping out before their sophomore year, according to educationdata.org. Money and financial problems are cited among the most prominent issues causing a student to drop out of college. According to the 2020 National Student Research Center High School Benchmarks Report, this is even higher for low-income and minority high school graduates, with only 28% of students completing college within six years.

Soto said he’s more worried about the present. “The future doesn’t matter if we’re broke and starving right now,” he said.

Now that restaurants have closed once again for in-person dining, Soto said he might have to find another part-time job. With work slow for both him and his mother, he feels he doesn’t have much choice but to take the spring semester off.

“I really wish I could do more,” Soto said. “I wish I could make my family happy by getting an education, but I need to make sure we have enough money, so we’re not broke.”

FRESNO, Calif.

On the Front Lines: Reality of a Young Essential Worker

Leonel Loera

The kNOw

Profile of two essential workers (grocery store/fast food) who are juggling school, work, and the risks of COVID.
Photo: Ivan Manriquez

When the pandemic hit, getting a job as an essential worker was a risk Ivan Manriquez knew he had to take. For the teen, who works part-time at a Fresno grocery store, the job is a way to contribute to the family bills while trying to save for the future.

“I honestly do owe it to my mom to cover all of this for her because of everything she’s sacrificed for me over the years,” Manriquez said. “I’m 19. I don’t want to have to ask her for money.”

He uses his check to contribute to the rent, pay car insurance, gas, phone service and save for college. With his older brother moving out, Manriquez knew he would need to help pick up the slack financially.

Manriquez is one of the thousands of teenagers and young adults across California who are on the front lines working at grocery stores, fast food restaurants and big-box retailers. The work is demanding, but there’s also the worry that the job puts them at greater risk of contracting the virus.

In California, many of the essential workers are youth of color. According to the most recent data from UC Berkeley’s Labor Center, 47% of essential workers are between the ages of 18-24. Latinx workers have the highest rate of employment in these jobs at 55% followed by Black workers (48%), workers of other races (38%) and Asian workers (37%).

“I thought it was funny because just less than a year ago, people would just call this unskilled labor, and now it’s essential work,” Manriquez said.

“I think it really hit me when Beyoncé did a video thanking all essential workers, and I was like, ‘She shouted me out.’ But I was also wondering at the time, now that this pandemic is shaking the table, what is the pay going to look like?”

Illustration: Ulonie Garza

At the grocery store where Manriquez works, the safety policy allows two weeks of time off for employees who have symptoms related to the virus. According to Manriquez, employees are getting sick faster, causing stress to the few still clocking in.

“A lot of people are taking two weeks, which forces a lot of us to pick up more slack,” Manriquez said.

Fever checks are also enforced, and results are not being disclosed to staff, he said. And this causes worry that some employees might come to work sick.

“Me being me, I’m going to question everything. What if people have high temperatures, but they don’t want to send them home? They want to maximize profit; they don’t want to send these employees on time off,” he said.

Perhaps one of the biggest concerns Manriquez has faced during these times is the potential of paid time off not being honored should he get sick or contract the virus.

“It makes me kind of nervous because God forbid, I develop these symptoms and have to call in for my two weeks,” he said. “It's affecting me and my comfort working and also my strictness with customers wearing masks. That’s scary to me.”

According to the State of California Department of Industrial Relations, workers who experience symptoms of COVID-19 should quarantine at home for 14 days. Employers are required to provide supplemental paid sick leave under executive order N-51-20.

Being an essential worker isn’t easy, especially when customers act rude. Manriquez said there was a time when a customer whistled at him like you would do to grab a dog's attention.

“That’s one thing I do not like,” Manriquez said. “That stems from their ignorance. That’ll always be a challenge for me, dealing with customers when my patience is at a low. But also, I have to find the inner strength not to be so passive-aggressive. I’ve been blessed with this opportunity to help out my mom by working and to be a solid employee.”

"As much as I don’t want to work right now, I have to. One, to make money, (and) two, for the experience."

Still, Manriquez smiles and recounts the silver lining of the situation: not all customers are bad.

“I’ll be honest; there are some really genuine customers who have the energy to help us help them in any way that they can,” he said.

Often essential workers consider whether they should work to make money or stay safe and healthy. In some cases, it's not even a debate.

“If it had to be a battle, work would win because I do have to help my mom,” he said. “I do have to save up for college. As much as I don’t want to work right now, I have to. One, to make money, (and) two, for the experience. Building a resume is important to me.”

Behind Our Mask is a collaboration between Boyle Heights Beat, Coachella Unincorporated, The kNOw and YR Media from the California Youth Media Network. The work was produced by a team of young journalists from Coachella, Fresno, Los Angeles and Oakland.

Boyle Heights Beats
Coachella Unincorporated
The Know Youth Media
YR Media