ST PAUL, Minn. — In Minnesota, high school students can’t receive unemployment benefits while enrolled in school.
And many high schoolers who don’t qualify say they are left with two choices: Drop out of school or become eligible for benefits so they can put food on the table and maintain stable housing for their families.
Walter Cortina said he has helped support his family since he was 13. His mom was deported when he was 13 and his dad was when he was seven. He is now 17.
While going to school full time, Cortina held down a job to support himself and his family. Then, COVID-19 hit and he was out of work.
"I lost my job. I was working at a car wash," he said.
Now, he is advocating for out of work high school students in Minnesota to receive unemployment benefits. Cortina says the money will help him pay for rent and other essentials. He is also supporting an aunt, who once cared for him when his mom was deported, as she recovers from breast cancer.
The last photo he took with his mother in the U.S. was captured at the airport.
"I was 13. I was a baby. I didn't know what life was at that time," he said. "I didn't know what responsibilities were. I didn't know what a job was. I didn't understand the value of a mother."
And he wasn't prepared for what followed.
"Work two jobs and be by yourself. I have been living by myself since I was 13," he said. "We just couldn't pay the bills. We lost the light the heat and the house. We were couch hopping, staying with family."
The 17-year-old student at High School for Recording Arts said he doesn't want to end up in the same predicament: unable to pay his bills.
He is not alone. A chorus of students who help provide for their families are sharing similar stories on social media. One student said he needs unemployment benefits to drive to the pharmacy for life-saving drugs. He adds he can't take public transit because of an underlying health condition.
"I am also a cancer patient. I suffer from chronic myelogenous leukemia and I have to take oral chemotherapy every single day to keep me feeling well and alive," he said sitting in a car. "My parents do not receive any aid, because they are undocumented."
A teen who identified themselves as a transgender person of color said they are out of work and unable to pay for hormone therapy medication, which they said insurance doesn't cover.
Another student said she lost her job because of COVID-19.
"I am not able to look for other forms of unemployment because my mom is high risk," she said. "We are the one group of people who are not eligible for any state or federal aid."
Walter hopes to turn their current hardships into hope.
"If you are having a bad time or experience the storm will pass. The rain doesn't last forever," he said. "Hope keeps me moving forward. Make sure the high school students get unemployment benefits. Minnesota should let out-of-work high school students receive this essential support during the COVID-19 crisis. I really feel taping into the core of young people could change a lot in a lot of communities."
Cortina says he is fortunate and on his way to create change. He recently landed an internship with the Minneapolis Foundation where he will continue advocacy work through a non-profit he started called Bridgemakers.
But he fears, some of his friends who are left to care for their families may press pause on school in order to become eligible for benefits.
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The state of Minnesota has set up a hotline for general questions about coronavirus at 651-201-3920 or 1-800-657-3903, available 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
There is also a data portal online at mn.gov/covid19.