Coronavirus: SLO County students jobs help mental health

For Crystal Fabela, most school days have been the same: Go to class, do homework and then head to her job at the French Corner Bakery in Cambria.

Usually, none of her classmates at Coast Union High School turn on their cameras — creating a classroom of empty screens. Sometimes the only people the 17-year-old senior and class president sees outside her household are co-workers and customers at her work.

“In the beginning (of the coronavirus pandemic), I felt like I was getting distanced from everybody in general. And like I was losing myself,” Fabela said.

When COVID-19 shut down schools across San Luis Obispo County in March and forced students to attend classes virtually, Fabela said the silence and lack of human interaction were surprisingly relieving.

“But after a while, I was like, ‘Oh, I need to talk to people,’ ” she said. “I need to talk to another human. I can’t talk to my wall; I can’t talk to my cat — they’re not gonna talk back to me.”

Like many local high school students who found themselves with extra time on their hands — since instructional hours were shortened — and a drive to get out of the house, Fabela had ample incentive to find a job.

Rules for student workers

Minors in California are required to get work permits, which are administered by their schools. These permits were given to students even when schools were closed due to the pandemic.

Students ages 14 to 17 are generally allowed to work three to four hours on school days, or eight hours on non-school days, for a maximum of 48 hours per week. Those younger than 14 are prohibited from having jobs, but exceptions apply to those in agriculture and domestic work, and the entertainment industry.

None of those rules changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. And hundreds of students are still working across San Luis Obispo County.

Cruz Landers, a sophomore at Arroyo Grande High School who works at Pancho’s Surf Shop in Pismo Beach, is one of 200 students at the school with a work permit.

The 15-year-old said that, with school being online, he had more time than normal to spend at his job. For Landers, it was a solution to the absence of social interaction.

“You’re alone in your room, typing on the keyboard every day for six hours and doing work,” he said. “I don’t even know, like, over half the people who are even in my classes. They just pop up as little name tags. I’ve never even seen them.”

High school is typically a giant social jungle, where every move a kid makes — from who they sit next to at lunch to what they wear — can impact their lives and how they grow up, said Justine Lowry, a student support counselor who works for the San Luis Obispo County Behavioral Health Department.

“The dances and the sports, now all of that is gone; they’re stuck on laptops,” Lowry said. “And so if a job is the biggest thing for them to look forward to, then it can really be a positive.”

Meia Schram, a senior at Nipomo High School, said her job at Panda Express has made her happy.

“Being able to see people in person, it really helps me connect better with that person and be able to understand how they’re feeling,” Shram, 17, said. “So I’m thinking, like, how do I lighten the mood, you know, especially with work. It gets stressful where there’s a lot of people. But just being able to make someone’s day, that’s what drives me.”

Beyond offering a chance for social interaction, jobs teach kids valuable skills that will can them when applying for future employment or to colleges, said Colleen Martin, a college and career center specialist at San Luis Obispo High School and a trustee on the San Luis Coastal Unified School District board.

Most colleges and universities in California ask whether a student has held a job in their application forms, Martin said. It shouldn’t be hard to check that box, she added, since there are often many restaurants, retail shops, grocery stores and other businesses in San Luis Obispo County that are looking for young, eager students to hire.

Some families need students’ paychecks

However, many high school students don’t hold jobs to get extra kudos on a college application, or even to see people in person, Lowry said.

Cities along the Central Coast have been hit hard with the coronavirus pandemic, she said, especially towns such as Cambria, which relies heavily on tourism and traffic along Highway 1 to bring in business.

“Entire families lost their jobs or had to modify their jobs,” she said. “So if a high schooler was lucky enough to continue working, I think they felt a little more of that pressure to keep up with the job.”

Having a job “can be really beneficial, and this can be the thing that gets us out of our funk and out of our house and into jeans,” Lowry added, but there’s sometimes a flip side for students. “Every moment that they’re away from the house, something’s expected of them, and there has to be an outcome and there has to be a paycheck.”

Fabela, the student at Coast Union High School, said she sees students at her school who are stressed and overwhelmed by balancing schoolwork and jobs.

The solution, she said, is for students to take time to find out what they want — whether that is finishing high school, going to college or starting their own business — and then dedicate themselves to that goal.

“You just have to really try,” she said. “You really have to want it: ‘I can do whatever I believe I can do. So I am scared for the future. But I feel like I have a goal and it’s stronger than my fear.’ ”

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Mackenzie Shuman primarily writes about Cal Poly, SLO County education and the environment for The Tribune. She’s originally from Colorado Springs, Colorado, and graduated from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in May 2020. When not writing, Mackenzie spends time outside hiking, running and rock climbing.

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