All Hands on Deck: Youth Worker Burnout and Resilience during COVID-19
Youth workers are the unsung heroes in youth development. An umbrella term, a “youth worker” aids in the development of a young person. Positive youth development (PYD) aims to understand, educate, and engage children in productive activities rather than at correcting, curing, or treating them for maladaptive behaviors or disabilities (Damon, 2004). Youth workers can serve in capacities differing from advocacy, arts, afterschool, summer camp, leadership development, civic engagement, college access, workforce development, foster care, juvenile justice, mental health, sports, technology, amongst others.
Specifically during out-of-school time (OST), they fill the essential gap between the school day and home life. They are often underpaid and there is no uniform set of standards amongst different youth serving organizations. Despite the challenges, those serving youth in these conditions are passionate and remain in these positions despite their best interests, financially or personally. During the beginning of COVID-19 global pandemic, many youth serving nonprofit organizations in NYC laid off youth workers in large numbers. Meanwhile, funders still expected the remaining workers to deliver the same services with little regard for their safety and wellbeing.
This paper aims to offer up a popular political discourse, to share the firsthand accounts of youth development professionals on the front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic as they navigated an unprecedented time gaining new insights. As a part of these massive layoffs myself, I saw the burnout my former colleagues and youth development professionals experienced early on during the pandemic and still are experiencing first hand. I write from this point of view in the interest of the voices that often go unheard yet are instrumental in the lives of young people that they serve. These testimonials share the effects COVID-19 had on those who were laid off, and the effects that are currently being felt by youth practitioners. They share their thoughts on funding, the needs of the youth and families, and learning how to adapt to a new virtual environment.
My World Turned Upside Down
My career in youth development began 10 years ago. Prior to the pandemic, I worked at a nonprofit organization for seven years, rising amongst the ranks. I began as a summer camp supervisor, then led teen leadership and civic engagement programs, and directed a college and career readiness program for first-generation students. Eventually, I landed in the corporate office serving high school graduates (which consisted of many of the students who I had the privilege to serve earlier in my career) as they navigated their first year in college. I even travelled overseas with a group of teens exploring global service learning. While I missed direct service with young people, I was making a difference on a larger scale by being part of a team that planned citywide events, updated standards and best practices, and provided professional development for front line staff.
I paid special attention to and thought about how to provide the tools needed to be successful – something I lacked when I began my journey in youth development. As the dangers of the pandemic actualized in March 2020, policies and best practices began changing on a daily basis. My fellow colleagues scrambled to make sense of it all to relay it down the pipeline to all the other departments in an organization of hundreds. Talks of layoffs ran rampant while New York City was shutting down. Schools were moving towards a remote model, and we all feared for the future of our jobs while worrying whether we would contract a virus that took so many lives; news stations aired nothing but the death tolls on air 24/7. With budgets uncertain for the summer and afterschool programs in the fall, approximately 14,000 youth development professionals’ livelihoods hung in the balance (Amir, 2020).
Amongst all of this uncertainty, I was furloughed in March 2020 along with hundreds others as a monetary precaution as explained to me. As the pandemic continued, more were furloughed and by June, our employment status changed from furloughed to officially laid off. Having never been unemployed for no longer than a month since the age of 17, I did not handle it well. From March to June, I was glued to the television, my anxiety growing as the numbers of the infected and dead steadily rose. My older sister contracted the virus and there were many sleepless nights because I feared I may lose her to the disease. The feeling of helplessness washed over me and there was nothing I could do but pray. Thankfully, she recovered. Whenever life got hard, I leaned on youth work to distract and push me forward.
Working with young people gave me a sense of importance in the world; the work really mattered and I loved helping people (and still do). Serving first generation students will always hold a special place in my heart as I am one myself, but being unemployed, I felt like a failure. My identity was directly tied to my work and the youth development field took a big hit. I searched for jobs to no avail, as many other youth development organizations were following suit. I worried about all my friends and colleagues in youth development and the difficulties they were facing. I thought about the young people who relied on the services that were slashed or adapted to a virtual environment. Some programs were not as fortunate and if they relied on city funding, they were expected to run in-person programming. That presented the unique challenge of juggling the conflicting feelings of gratitude of having employment coupled with the fear of contracting the virus due to said employment.
During the early days of the pandemic, many nonprofits were expected to continue running in-person programming in public schools without proper personal protective equipment (PPE). Programs were in jeopardy of losing their funding if they did not conduct in-person programming based on the parameters set in their contract agreements yet program managers in charge of auditing programs did not feel safe entering the school buildings to evaluate those programs. Many in the field shared their disgust in the hypocrisy of the matter. They felt like their safety did not matter and funders did not take into consideration that we were, and still are living through an unprecedented global pandemic.
The Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), the largest youth employment program in the U.S. that provides summer career exploration and work readiness experiences for youth ages 14-24, was cut to save NYC $124 million (Gonzalez & Norman, 2020). However, organizations and youth alike rallied together to advocate for the city to reinstate SYEP and achieved a partial win: 35,000 youth slots instead of the typical 70,000 became available. Admittance into this program was already selective: youth can either be chosen via lottery or by an SYEP provider, however, many providers working in high schools only serve those particular students. Youth development professionals who usually had months to prepare for SYEP struggled to rehire some of the furloughed staff, enroll students, and secure worksites for the young people, having about four weeks to complete the arduous process. Traditionally, SYEP providers begin this process in January to ensure all facets are completed by the end of June so students may be ready to begin their work experience by July.
Through these hurdles, youth workers remained resilient and still managed to serve the youth as best as they could. This profession is a labor of love and a privilege: youth need to feel safe to trust a youth worker and when they do, it allows a youth worker to help guide the future generation to reach their full potential. Colleagues in the field confessed that while their organizations shared information to their clients to practice self care, yet demanded the remaining employees to work longer hours and added more on their overflowing plates. Youth workers maintained a brave face towards the young people. If young people felt overwhelmed during this time, youth workers must have felt similarly. The following reflections are firsthand accounts of youth workers’ experiences during the pandemic, donated to this paper to offer multiple perspectives on the moment. For privacy purposes, all names have been changed and the names of the organizations will not be shared. Although it is about the individual experience and the places they work, it is really about the larger system at work.
Rising to the Occasion
Jemma is employed in a large youth serving nonprofit that furloughed then laid off over 1,600 employees due to the pandemic. March 2020 was an interesting time: news reports shared the imminent danger that would befall us, yet it felt like the organization did not act with as much urgency as other organizations in creating contingency plans. She felt that they did not have a plan but rather relied on the information that the city provided to make the decision for them. As an organization that serves over 6,400 young people, the loss was tremendous. If a program was not directly funded by the Department of Education (DOE) or the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), it was shut down. The organization simply could not internally fund a program that did not have external funding, shining a light on a bigger issue: biting off more than they could chew. They used unrestricted funds to pay the remaining employees and provided health insurance for all including those furloughed for a few months, thus showing some compassion.
“I feel like the organization is tied to the funders, or is at the mercy of the funders, because I believe if we have all of the money in the world, our decisions would be different. I need funders to understand that I do not need you to fund us for anything new. I need you to fund us for what was so we can bring back what was before adding anything new. Just because we have pivoted a buzzword [trauma] doesn’t mean you need to fund only that buzzword , just because y’all know what trauma is now. Does it mean that leadership development is no longer important like tangible soft skills development? Ultimately addressing trauma actually means giving young people consistency, expectations, and a place where they can process what they’ve been through and that happened in programs that we were already offering. We can do add-ons especially to address the niche situations that have happened, but not without bringing back what we already had. You’re not doing us anything but a disservice. And you’re also bombarding additional work onto caring professionals that have already been stretched thin, or are holding six different jobs now that they weren’t doing prior. Stop trying to fund us as if you’re the new expert on something and ask me what I need, and then want to give us $25,000. $25,000 is not even a single person’s salary.”
As someone in a leadership position, Jemma had to support the staff and was overwhelmed by all that surrounded her: people losing their lives to the virus, colleagues losing their jobs, schools closing, and youth who no longer could receive services, amongst many other constraints. Sites quickly converted to emergency childcare for essential workers and while that change was successful, it was not without challenges.
“So when you think about how much work the teachers are doing, when you think about how much work the typical educator is doing, think about all the youth development professionals that don’t get a pension and have put on their masks and walk right into emergency childcare. Please also care about us and care about the fact that if our funding falls, the young people are most affected and will always be worried about the young person. We need teachers and we need youth workers. I cannot teach this young person math; I need that math teacher to teach that young person math. I can help them with the wrap-around services like mental health, Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) development, leadership development, and service learning. We should work together, because we can’t do it all. It’s together, it’s that village we talk about. We all need each other.”
As I continued my conversation with Jemma, wanting to learn more about her personal experience, she always reverted back to the youth. Knowing that she could still support youth despite being in direct contact helped her during such an uncertain time. She coordinates a yearly retreat for over 300 young people and youth workers, one of her favorite events, but during 2020, changes had to be made to create the magic virtually.
“During the fall retreat we mailed out badges; I literally sat there and made individual badges with stickers and mailed them to everyone as the first activity, so they could all do it online together. Then we did our first breakout groups and our activities as if we were in-person. The next day we had an early morning activity. We began with a yoga session and our young people showed up too, which was exciting. We also had three different specialty breakouts sessions: social justice, healthy relationships, and volunteerism. Then we did our values sessions and our celebration for high school seniors. What was really interesting about it is that you can still flip your screen and sing all the same songs, so we were literally swaying on camera to “Lean on Me.” On the last day, we still gave out awards. I mailed out awards afterwards and the feedback that I got from the young people was the best because it let us know that we should still be doing these special events. One young person shared that because we moved it onto the weekday (because I was trying to also be respectful of youth workers’ time because we have way less hours to offer), it was the first time they were ever able to attend. Due to their faith, they were not allowed to engage in technology on Saturdays, or go away. For other young people they said they were so happy that we still ran the event because it was either their last year [in the program] or their first year and it was something that they were afraid they weren’t going to get to engage in. Then another young person said that she was able to attend virtually. She developed social anxiety due to the pandemic. She said that she’s been struggling with anxiety and being able to engage off camera, but still being present was helpful for her, because it helped her combat that isolation. I now consider having cameras on to be a challenge by choice.”
I was amazed by the creativity that was sparked when faced with a challenge to run a large virtual event and also to discover new possibilities for youth to thrive in a virtual environment. Jemma’s passion for youth work during a time of chaos is a prime example of dedication and is the reason I have kept her testimony intact. She spent more time sharing about the young people than discussing her own personal burnout. She also shared that she sought out therapy due to all of the stress of the changes at work and a global pandemic and she practiced self care by spending time with family and engaged with friends via social media before getting COVID tested and subsequently vaccinated. Now that more New Yorkers are vaccinated, Jemma hopes that they can begin to resume their in-person services and engage, not only with young people, but with the community at large.
Rebuilding Community Trust
Albert, a director of youth programming, faced the tough challenge when the community felt abandoned from the nonprofit organization when they had to close their doors during the early months of the pandemic. During the five years in his role, Albert helped to provide a safe place for youth, teens, and families in a community with an increased crime rate. He worked with a local charter school to teach civic engagement, ran youth sports, summer camp, and leadership development for teens throughout the school year. Their presence in the community was strongly felt and in an instant, it was gone.
“My organization is located in an underserved community specifically serving children, young men and women of color, and adults. So, when the pandemic hit, it affected me personally, because I had just gotten to a point in the community as a leader in a department where we were seeing big changes. Our numbers were on the rise for youth sports. Finally, families were engaged and families were enjoying programming. Camp was improving every year, the numbers just kept going up and up. That just shows that my team was having an amazing impact on the families and the community. I didn’t even have to call families to register for camp. They were emailing me to ask me when registration began and how to make sure that they didn’t miss it.”
When the pandemic forced their site to close, Albert was moved to another site to help with emergency childcare for first responders and essential workers. He returned to this site in the fall of 2020 but not to the capacity prior and to a different reception from the community. The community felt abandoned during a time when they needed support the most.
“I went from supervising youth sports, camp, and teen programming, about 200 plus teens in our program to now having 15. We went from having 120 kids and our after school program to having 25, the amount of programs that were running and able to offer in our community has changed as well. We have become a vaccination site since the beginning of April. I think a lot of the members think we abandoned them. We got emails and calls saying, ‘hey what’s going on with you guys. Where are you? We want you back.’ So, you know that’s always the hard part: letting them know what’s going on and what our new role in the community is because the funding is gone.”
Albert’s goal is to serve the community at full capacity again. At the time of writing, in-person programming has slowly begun resuming. Their leadership development program can only maintain a maximum attendance of 15 and participants must maintain social distancing guidelines. However, with summer camp returning in-person (in 2021), there is light at the end of the tunnel. Albert’s determination is to make the best out of a terrible situation. While he understands the trepidation of the community, he is adamant of re-building their trust once again.
Throw Your Lesson Plan Out of the Virtual Window
Danielle was one of the lucky ones. When youth serving organizations laid off staff left and right, she remained employed since her program received federal funding. She serves 11th and 12th grade students from low income communities and offers college, career and work readiness and leadership development in a high school in Manhattan. She wears many hats in this role, from overseeing the entire program including a mountain of paperwork, budgeting, to running programming. The workload increased while her team decreased. Since she relies on in-kind staff, employees who assist in the program but salaries are not tied to the federal grant, those staff members were not safe when layoffs arrived. “At the beginning of the pandemic we suffered a lot of turnover and a lot of our staff, our frontline staff were furloughed due to funding and due to the uncertainty of our organization at the moment. We rely heavily on in-kind staff, so these staff members are not a part of our government funded grant and not having those particular folks in place, not only threw off our ratio, but it also threw off the dynamic.”
Our teens come to us, not because we could give them a scholarship and, although those things are very, very important, our teens come to us because they like us and we have built a group dynamic and we have those connections with them. So it was really tough to transfer that same energy from in-person to remote and it was hard for me, personally. I struggled a lot with it because I’m loud and energetic. It’s hard to convey that same energy and my opinion remotely. At first, I think the teens were really excited because on the first day back in our remote setting, we had a high number, like 33, on our first day. They had lots of questions [regarding staff]. They were asking questions about these prominent folks that they built bonds with and we had to beat around the bush, which is something we never do. This was the first time we had to say, ‘well we don’t really know.’ That was pretty tough. I think it affected the energy of the group. As the weeks went by, we saw less and less numbers. That really was disheartening because we rely heavily on the energy of teens and the different groups of friends that come together. They have their own dynamic which is then pushed onto the entire group. It was very tough seeing attendance and energy slowly decrease, but I will say that we had a solid group that stuck it out.”
Danielle also knew that they needed to be creative to keep the teens attention. Young people have spent many hours in front of a screen so by the time after school hours began, the team had to come up with creative ways to engage with authenticity.
“We couldn’t be another class or another opportunity to sit down and just be in front of a screen. We did a lot of active games and we tried different ways to explore social emotional learning. Their personal lives completely shifted so now they’re with their family, 24 hours a day and they don’t have an opportunity to travel on a train to decompress anything that may be going on; they gotta live in that, they gotta sit in it. So we wanted to just be different.
I’m more of an off-the-cuff type of person and I’m also a believer in synergies. One day we did a go-around and the question was, ‘how are you feeling today?’ All we heard was, ‘I feel sad, I’m disappointed, I’m tired.’ So we just scrapped the entire lesson plan because you have to hear these cues, and we can’t just go by the book of whatever we had planned. I had to make a decision at that moment that our kids needed to just vent and talk and for them to know that they’re not alone. We’re all going through this together. This is the first time in history, I believe that this is where literally everyone is feeling the same thing, at the same time, and we can’t really escape it.”
Sharing Danielle’s story in full is essential as it illustrates the importance of being transparent in the work, paying attention to social cues, and addressing the elephant in the room. At times, we may have a lesson plan that we need to get through, however, if the young people are preoccupied with other concerns, in this case, a global pandemic that has changed the very fabric of their lives, they will not retain the lesson. Who could blame them? Lack of employment, food and housing during this time increased, especially in underserved communities. Not having basic needs met can affect the growth and development of a person.
Danielle made the right choice by acknowledging their feelings and giving them a space to express themselves freely. Those moments were not only felt in programming with the young people but in staff meetings as well. Danielle further explained how leading during a pandemic affected her and her colleagues. “The week prior to throwing my lesson plan out of the window to cater to the teens, we were all just sitting in a virtual space, crying. It was just 4 people, the miniature version of the staff we had left. We were all crying, because we were just so overwhelmed. The funding changed and we used a lot of that money to offer incentives for the teens. Their payments were cut by 61% and we knew that the teens relied so much on this money.” While Danielle and her team did their best to continue serving the teens despite staff and student incentive payment cuts while being “Zoomed out,” described as an exhaustion or fatigue due to prolonged online work (Giovannoni, 2020), she understood how this was all affecting her.
“Most importantly, this pandemic just showed how mental health needs to be taken more seriously. Not only for young people but for youth workers. We were expected to continue serving in this capacity with a smaller budget, without the staff support, to make sure the teens are being taken care of. That was my struggle and something I actually shared during our crying session. I was open and honest with not only the staff but the teens alike. My job is kind of like a motivational speaker in that sense, I have to motivate, give them tools, guidance, and support and I’m holding them up. However, who’s holding me up? I was upfront and transparent with them. At that moment, I was living alone. I was not really living with anyone and could not see my family. There were very low moments in my life, times where I just didn’t want to get on zoom, I didn’t want to do it.”
As time went on, Danielle turned to counseling to help during the first half of the pandemic. Her experience is similar to many youth development professionals who were forced to keep pushing and keep smiling while overworked and hurting on the inside.
I, like Danielle, sought therapy during the second half of the pandemic as my identity and self esteem was tied to my work. When I began my career in youth development, I relished in the satisfaction I received when I realized the tremendous impact that was made in the lives of young people. Work boundaries became nonexistent as I never like to say the word, “No,” when asked to take on a task. I can recall instances where I worked longer hours assisting participants with college applications and scholarships knowing that I would not be paid for the extra hours. It did not matter to me at the time because I thought, if not me, who would step in? This mentality was then reinforced by management who praised me for my work and expected that level of commitment to continue, and it did for many years. Forgetting to take lunch breaks, completing work at home outside of work hours, and late nights at the office were just some of the sacrifices I made for youth development and it is this work culture that many youth workers are currently engrossed in that is toxic. How do we combat this system that has only been more exposed due to COVID-19? What resources are available to youth workers before they reach their breaking point?
How Do We Keep Youth Workers Safe and Prevent Burnout?
Access to health insurance is paramount yet lacking in many youth serving organizations. Many front line youth workers are hired at part-time and therefore do not have access to health insurance and must resort to the New York State health plan marketplace which can be more expensive. Additionally, some organizations offer employee assistance programs (EAP). According to the Society for Human Resource Management (2020), “an employer-sponsored EAP is a work-based intervention program designed to identify and assist employees in resolving personal problems that may be adversely affecting their performance at work, such as marital, financial or emotional problems; family issues; or substance or alcohol abuse.” Access to this program also depends on status of employment. Early on during the pandemic, apps like Headspace offered a free year membership to the unemployed (Carman, 2020). Online counseling websites such as Talkspace and BetterHelp are additional options but with monthly dues ranging from $150 and up, it surely is not the most cost effective option. However, until everyone has access to healthcare and employee benefits, we are just placing bandaids on a larger issue and the solution is clear: free healthcare for all.
City, state, and federal funding is another culprit to burnout. If contract amounts increased, it could allow organizations to hire more full time staff and allow youth workers to access more employee benefits. However, this is symptomatic of a larger issue in funding for human services and the systems of oppression in place to further perpetuate this unjust cycle. Youth work, specifically out of school time, is notorious for the revolving door of employees that quit due to lack of available hours and low wages. This hinders the trust that staff try to build with their participants. If youth serving organizations could hire more full time front line staff, the more workers they could retain over time and enforce the trust between the young people and youth workers.
One major step in professionalizing the youth development field and preventing burnout is to create a labor union. Labor unions in youth development could offer an increase in pay, better benefits, more income equality, and offer job security. Labor unions have been on the decline in recent years as it is not a perfect system, either. There are many rules, union dues, strikes are possible and it can lead to permanent employee replacement. (Brannen, 2025). The thought of unionizing feels overwhelming; where do we start and who is brave enough to take the first step?
Youth work will always matter. They offer support that allows young people to flourish. We have to create a better work-life balance as respect to ourselves. I am reminded of this when emailing students to take care of themselves as I often get a response to do the same. Youth workers spend so much time caring for others, they may forget to take care of themselves. Speaking to a therapist allowed me to focus on the areas outside of work such as family and friends, and that support system truly helped me when I felt isolated and alone. I also found joy spending time outside and in nature. More mental health resources have been implemented such as NYC Well, which offers free confidential support via phone, text or chat, and it is my hope that these resources will increase and remain free so all may have access.
My conversations with youth development professionals proved the fervor in which they operate. They always shifted the attention off of themselves and talked about the youth and it showed their selflessness through and through. While the need to fix a broken system is still a long time coming, perhaps funders can look at youth development with a new lens and allow youth workers a seat at the table to better support those who support young people because youth workers are essential.
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