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Students who work overnight jobs sleep for just a few hours before heading into classes at a Queens high school.

Students who work overnight jobs sleep for just a few hours before heading into classes at a Queens high school.

Aleksandra Konstantinovic

Undocumented teens struggle to balance high school with working the night shift

Waves of heat flooded the factory floor of an industrial kosher bakery as workers opened and closed the doors. Commercial mixers whirled a thick dough that would soon be braided into challah rolls and baked to a golden brown. In the midst of this noise and heat, Luis, a 17-year-old high school student, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, began his shift. It was a weeknight, 3 a.m., and the Salvadoran teen was supposed to be in class in just five hours.

He poured flour, salt and yeast into the mixers, and rolled out the finished dough. The flattened product he’d hang on racks, where other workers – mostly Central American immigrants like himself – would carry it to the ovens to bake.

Luis is undocumented, having fled El Salvador two years ago. For two months in winter, he spent six nights a week in Zomick’s Kosher Bakery on Long Island, working from 9 at night to 5 in the morning, making approximately $8 per hour – under the state minimum wage of $9. He typically went to bed immediately after getting home from school at 3 p.m., waking up in time to have dinner and go to work. Most mornings, he said, he could still make it to school on time after resting his eyes for another hour. But he was often too tired to focus on schoolwork.

“It’s heavy work. It was too much on me,” said Luis, speaking through a translator, his teacher at Queens High School for Information, Research and Technology (QIRT). He ended up leaving the job after two months to find work without overnight hours.

But other students at the Far Rockaway, Queens public high school work, or have worked, at the same bakery, often on these long, overnight shifts. This past school year, approximately 25 percent of the student population of QIRT was composed of recent immigrants from Central America – mostly unaccompanied minors who crossed the border in record numbers in 2014. Many of these students had been in the country for the two years necessary to obtain legal status – but new immigrants arrived at QIRT weekly. This population of students is most likely to take overnight and underpaid jobs.

It’s a familiar situation for English teacher Joan Mazur. She estimates that about a quarter of her students last year, some as young as 15, were working essentially full-time jobs of 40 hours or more each week while attending high school. In addition to the bakery, students were employed in factories throughout the neighborhood, while others worked in local grocery stores and restaurants.

New York State labor laws regulate how many hours minors can work. During the school year, 14- and 15-year-olds are allowed to work three hours per day on school days and up to eight hours per day on weekends. Their 16- and 17-year-old counterparts can work four hours per day Monday through Thursday, and eight hours per day on Fridays, weekends and holidays. The younger group can only work between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., while older teenagers can work between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. The restrictions are relaxed when school isn’t in session, or if a teenager has dropped out of school.

Although students like Luis work outside of the allowed hours, the few teachers who know about these jobs hesitate to report the businesses for a violation of the labor code. If a student loses his income, they fear, it could lead to a lost home. The students also become more vulnerable to deportation raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement on their 18th birthdays, though some young workers might be eligible for a U visa, which guarantees protection for victims of certain crimes.
The complexities around their students’ working lives leave teachers unsure of how to help.

“We don’t tell them to quit,” Spanish teacher Jomarie Figueroa said. “But we’ll tell their parents that they need to be in school.”

Some students have told Mazur and Figueroa that they need the money to help their parents pay rent and bills. Some also still owe money to the coyotajes who arranged for them to cross the border after fleeing violence in their home countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. Figueroa said that these long, perilous journeys have left families in up to $20,000 worth of debt per person. And typical of a teenager, Luis also wanted to save his own money for a cell phone.

Immigration expert and attorney Allan Wernick wasn’t surprised to hear of these undocumented young people working overnight. Echoing the teachers, he said it’s particularly difficult to convince them not to work when the money is needed. And Wernick questioned whether there was any value for the students in taking on the businesses that hire them. “Unless there’s a financial remedy or they get some benefit out of it, what’s the point of suing?” he said. “Yes, [the students] have a right to recovery, but not a right to the job.”

Meanwhile, however, these overnight jobs can cause issues at school, leaving the students tired and unprepared in class, Mazur said. Some will leave classes early or stop attending altogether in order to accommodate their work — a problem at a school where only 55 percent of students graduate in four years.

It’s particularly concerning for students who may have come to the school from other countries with only a few years of formal education. Missing additional classes means they fall further and further behind. In a recent English class, some struggled to complete worksheets designed for much younger children, which asked them to identify cartoon drawings of cats and houses by their English names. Mazur said some seem dejected when they fail to quickly grasp English. Other students believe their jobs are simply more important than coming to class, and are usually forthright about why they were late or absent.

During one lesson, Mazur wrote the names of her students’ home countries on the board – El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala – and asked for the capital cities. Her students shouted out the answers as Mazur wove into the lesson a recent soccer game between Honduras and El Salvador that had been popular entertainment in the class. But despite some students’ enthusiastic responses, others had their heads in their arms, too tired to focus.

Mazur sees students who make a tremendous effort to juggle both work and classes. “The reality is, the kids who are most motivated to work like that are also the ones most interested in learning,” Mazur said.

QIRT’s attendance rates were approximately 85 percent school-wide last year, according to business manager Parris Morris, compared to a citywide average of 92 percent. Phone calls and home visits can motivate students to attend, she added. But Mazur sees that even when they do attend, many students with jobs aren’t as engaged.

“It’s not so much the attendance, it’s when they get here, their heads are on their desks,” Mazur said.

Jackie, a student who works at the same bakery where Luis just quit, packs baked challah from late afternoon to approximately 1 a.m. – about 48 hours each week. She said she’s paid $9 per hour, and began working when she was just 15. Her name has also been changed due to fears about her job and her immigration status.

Both Jackie and Luis said everyone in their family has a job. As of March, Jackie, who came from Honduras last year, was still going to court every month or so as part of the process that she hopes will legalize her status. She lives with her mother and two cousins in an apartment in Far Rockaway. Luis also contributes to his household income, but with his family more established, he’s able to spend his earnings on clothing and electronics. He said he also likes working because it provides some independence.

“It’s all about money,” Figueroa said, marking a student absent for the third time that week.

Zomick’s Kosher Bakery was the subject of a lawsuit filed last year that claimed it had paid the three adult plaintiffs, all of whom worked 72 hours per week, less than minimum wage.

Lawyers for the owners of the bakery denied each claim. The lawsuit, filed in March of last year, was dismissed in January 2016.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs did not return multiple requests for comment, while lawyers for the defense declined to discuss the case, saying the resolution was confidential. However, attorney Aaron Solomon of Kaufman, Dolowich and Voluck, who represented the bakery during the lawsuit, did state that all of Zomick’s employees are of legal age.

Solomon also stated that Zomick’s complies with the requirements of the Immigration Reform and Control Act by requiring employees to provide documentation that they are authorized to work in the United States.

Mazur believes her working students receive checks made out to cash, and take them to check cashing stores. Figueroa has asked them whether it’s worth it to make so little, and then pay for transportation to and from work, along with a fee to get the cash. A solution to the truancy and the overnight jobs, she speculated, might be to make school attendance a requirement for obtaining immigration papers. She’s seen many of her students leave school for work once they know their place in the country is secure.

“I was horrified,” Mazur said, regarding some of her students’ jobs. “Nobody that young should be working like that because they feel like they have to.”

This story originally appeared in School Stories, a publication produced by students at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.