Some Evanston teenagers say Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program wages not enough


Source: Kevin Brown

Evanston mayor Steve Hagerty addresses participants at the 2018 Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program job fair. The program connects “at-risk” teenagers with employment opportunities and training.

Eva Herscowitz, Reporter

When Bernice Olla-Chatman’s brother prepared to leave for college this summer, her mother, who single-handedly raises three children, was about to face more financial burden. The Evanston Township High School junior knew she needed to support her family, so she got a job at Evanston’s HAIR Science scheduling appointments, cleaning the salon and resupplying products for $8.50 an hour.

Olla-Chatman found the job through the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program, which connects 14- to 18-year-olds in Evanston with summer jobs through a job fair and training process. The program offers jobs in both the public and private sector and subsidizes salaries for some jobs in hair salons and barber shops.

Olla-Chatman, who wants to be a hairdresser, said her job gave her real-world experience in the beauty industry. But she said the wage, which the program subsidized, wasn’t enough to support students under financial strain.

“I think they were setting it because kids were mainly doing it because they just wanted extra money,” Olla-Chatman said. “They really don’t pay attention to kids who really need the job because they’re supporting their families. They’re taking it from the view that if you live in Evanston, there’s really no problems there.”

Kevin Brown, who manages Evanston’s Youth and Young Adult division, said the program employed 605 students last summer. Most students who work for the city — in government departments or community-based organizations — earn an hourly wage between $8.50 and $9.50, although some students have earned up to $11 an hour.Wages for students who work in the private sector are determined by their employer, and many are above minimum wage.

The federally-funded program, which was created in 1992, is a non-law enforcement crime prevention initiative. It targets students with minimal work experience hoping to improve their skill set for future jobs, as well as connecting “at-risk youth” with employment opportunities. Violent, theft, burglary, and drug-related arrests for 16- to 18-year olds in Evanston decreased by 219 percent from 2012 to 2018. Brown said he believes the job program has “contributed to that decline.”

Brown noted that the program’s public sector jobs pay twice as much as the starting federal minimum wage for employees under 20, which is $4.25 an hour. Evanston’s minimum wage is currently $12 an hour, and will increase to $13 an hour by 2020, following a 2017 Cook County ordinance that incrementally raised the wage. Subsidized temporary youth employment programs, however, are excluded from the wage increase.

The program is currently applying for a state violence reduction grant of several hundred thousand dollars, Brown said. If granted the money, he said the program will use it to increase wages and hire more students.

Olla-Chatman earned $3.50 less than the minimum wage for Evanston adult workers. She said she spent some of her salary on family bills, back-to-school clothes and school supplies for herself and her younger sister.

“They’re not really looking at everyone’s aspects for why they’re signing up for the job fair,” she said. “For some, $8.50 is enough. But it’s not enough for everyone.”

This February, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill that will raise Illinois’ minimum wage from $8.25 to $15 by 2025. Brown said raising wages for students in the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program over that timeframe is “something to be examined.”

He added that the city has to balance wage increases with employment access.

“We want to be able to employ as many young people as possible,” he said. “We have to figure out a way to create a balance where people are being paid fairly for the work that they’re doing and the training they’re receiving, while at the same time, being able to target really high-risk populations who need these opportunities for their growth and development.”

ETHS junior Halle Hall-Latchman worked as a camp counselor for the Robert Crown Community Center, where she earned $8.50 an hour through the employment program. She said she felt she wasn’t adequately compensated for her work, which she said was “a lot of running around in the hot sun, or hours on my feet in the heat.”

But Hall-Latchman added that the job fair was “convenient.” In addition to connecting students with jobs, the program provides students with training on interviewing, resume writing and workplace etiquette to increase the chance of being hired through the program.

Oliver Ruff, the vice president of Evanston’s Organization for Positive Action and Leadership, said that while the program’s average wage for public sector jobs may incentivize some students to continue working, “it doesn’t buy very much.”

“It does give the children something they can strive for,” he said. “It acts as a motivation for them. But in terms of the purchasing power, it doesn’t take them a long way.”

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