Walter Cortina has worked since he was 14, doing stints at McDonald’s and a local car wash. But when the 17-year-old student from Minneapolis was laid off in March amid the coronavirus pandemic, he found out he didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits because he was still in high school.

“That was very scary for me. I was like, what am I going to do to make money?” said Cortina, who also is barred from receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal initiative specifically for those who do not qualify for traditional unemployment.

Cortina was one of five Minnesota students who testified before the Legislature recently to push for a law that would temporarily expand unemployment benefits to high schoolers who have been working. Though they are hoping for action in the special session that begins this week, they have been given no assurances.

Meanwhile, the pandemic economy continues to take its toll on Cortina and possibly thousands of other young workers who depend on their wages to help their families, save for college, or simply survive.

Cortina, a junior at St. Paul’s High School for Recording Arts, supports his aunt and his mother, who was deported to Mexico along with his father. Both his aunt and his mother have battled breast cancer, and Cortina, now staying with his aunt, has experienced homelessness.

His position might not be as dire as some others. After six weeks of job hunting, Cortina recently secured a paid internship at the Minneapolis Foundation.

“Without that, I don’t know how I’d be getting through right now,” Cortina said.

He worries for other students who may be unable to pay rent, stay in school, or even buy groceries without a job during the pandemic.

A 1939 Minnesota state law bars high school students from receiving unemployment insurance. The state’s prohibition is one of the strictest in the country, said D.C. unemployment insurance expert Andrew Stettner. Unemployment guidelines in other Midwestern states such as Iowa, Indiana and Ohio treat high school students like any other workers, allowing them access to benefits. Michigan does not typically provide high schoolers with unemployment benefits but grants them access to federal pandemic benefits, Stettner said.

Amid a pandemic that has swelled the ranks of the unemployed, high school students in the state who need to support themselves or pay for college are asking state lawmakers to change the law, at least for the duration of Gov. Tim Walz’s COVID-19 emergency, which will be debated in the upcoming special session.

State Rep. Mohamud Noor has been working to expand benefits for young people since the start of the pandemic, a time when scores of young workers employed in industries most affected by the business shutdowns have also been left out of the federal stimulus package. He believes that providing benefits to working students is the least the state can do during this time.

“If they are old enough to be employed, then they are old enough to receive unemployment,” Noor said.

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development does not track the number of unemployed high school students. But a group of students pressing for change estimates that 10,000 Minnesota high school students have lost jobs due to the pandemic and may be in need of benefits. The coalition’s Facebook group, called “Don’tForgetUsCampaign,” has more than 200 members.

Cortina and several other students in the coalition testified earlier this month in a virtual hearing of the House Jobs and Economic Development Finance Division. The hearing was informational and the students were given no promises that their cause would be taken up in the DFL-controlled House, let alone the Republican-run Senate.

The House committee also heard from recent Roosevelt High School graduate Cole Stevens, who said he received Pandemic Unemployment Assistance but was later asked to return it because it covered a period when he was still in school. The 18-year-old said he needed the funds when they came in, as he has helped his father with bills since 2018 with money earned from working at a Bloomington coffee shop and freelance bike and audio work.

“I was already behind on bills by then, so I spent that money, and then they asked for it back like two days later,” Stevens said.

A judge recently ruled that he can receive benefits after graduation. But state officials are still requesting he return money, which amounts to more than $3,700.

“They’re trying to put a young kid in debt to the state right off the bat, straight out of high school,” said Stevens, who is appealing his case.

Graduation is still a week away for Minneapolis student Lincoln Bacal. During the House hearing, she spoke of students who won’t be able to wait until graduation and may be pressured to drop out of school.

“I just think it’s very unjust. The federal government created this fund [Pandemic Unemployment Assistance] specifically for people like me, and then Minnesota decides, no, we’re not actually going to allow this money to go back into our state and back into our youth that would eventually help the economy,” Bacal said in an interview.

Even as Walz relaxes restrictions on businesses closed during the pandemic, many young employees are among the last to be rehired. Before the pandemic, Bacal worked at Sebastian Joe’s, a popular ice cream shop in Uptown. Though the business has reopened with limited hours and seating, it is unlikely that they will return her to the schedule, she said.

“Even if I had wanted to work this summer, they don’t have me on the schedule, so I probably won’t be able to work there until next fall, if not later,” Bacal said. “So that sort of threw my plans out of whack.”

 

Zoë Jackson covers young and new voters at the Star Tribune through the Report For America program, supported by the Minneapolis Foundation.