Adi Talwar

Summer Youth Employment Program participants working in a community garden in the East Village in 2018.

This story was produced as part of the City Limits Accountability Reporting Initiative for Youth (CLARIFY) program.

After the de Blasio administration announced that it is cancelling the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) because of coronavirus concerns, youth advocates and those who participate in the program are fighting to reverse the decision. They say SYEP —which provides minimum-wage work and internships for young people aged 14 to 24 — is an economic lifeline for the city’s youth, particularly those who are low-income, and they are pushing for the city to continue the program this summer remotely. 

At a virtual press conference last week, Abdullah Mazumder, a senior at William Cullen Bryant High School in Queens, spoke about the importance of SYEP. Last year, he worked through the program as a youth leader for Global Kids, a youth development afterschool program for underserved communities.  

Mazumder’s family immigrated to the United States just two years ago and he, like many youth around the city, used the summer job to help support his family. He described SYEP as an opportunity to “give back” to his parents, save up for college, and “finally start to do something for myself.”

“[I] could use that experience to apply to more jobs and kickstart my life,” Mazumder said. 

“I don’t think the city right now should abandon the youth like this, not in this time of great need,” he added. “In this time of crisis, they need to find better and creative ways to make this program possible.”

City says health concerns warrant cancellation

SYEP has operated every summer since its founding in 1963. Demand for the program is high: Last year, 151,000 kids applied for only 75,000 slots. But city officials have said the current health pandemic poses too many hurdles for the program this year.

“Unfortunately, the uncertainty over how COVID-19 will continue to affect social distancing guidelines, worksite availability, and provider and site staffing as we head into late spring and summer makes it difficult to ensure that SYEP can be operated safely and efficiently,” said Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) Commissioner Bill Chong in an email to providers sent April 7th. 

The city’s fears mainly surround how the program will continue without endangering participants or providers. Some advocates argue, however, that providers are already working towards shifting to remote work and are looking for creative ways to engage SYEP workers virtually.  

A statement signed by dozens of organizations, elected officials and community leaders calls for the DYCD to fully fund SYEP this summer, conduct orientation and other programming remotely due to social distancing guidelines, and to provide Internet access and remote work equipment to youth participants who request it. Instead of outright cutting SYEP jobs that can’t be conducted remotely, advocates say the city should change the types of jobs available to participants to those that could more easily be done from home, such as doing remote work for legal organizations, financial institutions, or city agencies. 

They say SYEP workers should also be able to opt-in to jobs under the city’s COVID-19 response and recovery initiatives. Some of that work—such as community outreach and wellness checks to seniors or individuals with pre-existing conditions—could be done over the phone. Other roles, like delivering groceries to those in need, would require participants to receive appropriate training and safety equipment to perform no-contact deliveries. 

Some SYEP providers, such as nonprofit organizations Exalt Youth and El Puente, have already made the shift to offering their internships and other programming remotely this summer. 

Budget fight looms

“We all know we are entering a summer of uncertainty, but we also know that New Yorkers are adaptable and resilient, and many of our providers are already looking for creative ways to engage youth remotely, should the shutdown of businesses continue into the summer,” Councilmember Debi Rose, chair of the Committee on Youth Services, wrote in a letter to  urging Mayor de Blasio to restore SYEP funding. “Our youth are not expendable.” 

In the next few weeks,  the City Council will hold budget hearings and negotiations, fine tuning details of the final city budget. During this process, advocates plan to fight for SYEP’s re-inclusion, Rose and other lawmakers said.

The economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic is projected to be worse than any other the city has experienced in recent memory: The Office of Management and Budget expects the city will lose half a million jobs over the first three quarters of 2020, and to lose billions of dollars in tax revenue this year. 

Earlier this month, the mayor announced in a $89.3 billion financial plan that he will cut $2.7 billion over the next two fiscal years across the entire city government. The city contributed $134 million to SYEP last year, accounting for 0.144 percent of the overall $92.8 billion Fiscal Year 2020 budget. The city funds a little under than 82 percent of SYEP program costs; the state (14 percent) and federal government (4 percent) also chip in, and a small share of the program budget comes from private funders.

State Senator Robert Jackson, who was a SYEP worker when he was a teenager, suggested in a virtual press conference last week that funding could potentially be provided for the program by delaying other city funding, such as money for capital projects.

“The most important thing is for our people to survive right now,” he said.

Solutions exist, advocates say

Advocates are also calling for the city to provide individual grants to SYEP who are unable to work remotely, to make up for the income they’re losing because of the crisis.

“We can’t balance the budget off the backs of the very communities who are already facing the largest risks imposed by COVID-19 and who have already experienced the most losses,” said Council member Carlina Rivera, one of several lawmakers urging the mayor to restore the program. 

If SYEP is cancelled, its participants will see themselves “another year behind their peers who could maintain their private sector internships for the year,” forming what Rivera described as a “tale of Two Cities of people who can work in the private sector and have these connections” and those who don’t have those networks.

The vast majority of youth who participate in SYEP are people of color. In 2019, 81 percent of participants were Black, Hispanic, or Asian; 84 percent were enrolled in programs in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. SYEP has also employed NYCHA residents, youth who have interacted with the justice system and youth in foster care.

“Removing SYEP widens the opportunity gap for students coming from schools that lack resources in providing career exploration during the school year,” Felicia Singh, an educator and community leader, told City Limits. “SYEP is part of a system to dismantle segregated schools because it gives students from all walks of life the opportunity to thrive while earning an income over the summer.”

Advocates acknowledged that remote work under SYEP would pose some challenges, particularly when it comes to digital access. Based on data from two different city reports, Kevin Wei, who is involved in the campaign to save SYEP (in which the youth activism group Teens Take Charge and organizations like Here to Here play a leading role), estimates that about 25 to 30 percent of SYEP participants face the challenge of reliable Internet access at home. 

But DYCD would have a number of options to handle this at their disposal, Wei said, such as partnering with private companies, like the Department of Education did when remote learning began in mid-March and students got access to free Wi-Fi and iPads through an initiative with Spectrum. 

Campaign gains support

Teens Take Charge has begun sending out action plans for people to fight for the reinstatement of SYEP, and their petition had garnered nearly 28,000 signatures as of press time. They also started a social media campaign with the hashtag #SaveSYEP, and have taken other steps online, like tweeting at NY1 reporter Errol Louis to get him to ask de Blasio about it on “Inside City Hall.”

Claribella Perez is a sophomore at Comp Sci High, a computer science charter high school located in the Bronx. Last summer, SYEP connected her with a position teaching children the basics of photography. The job provided her with opportunities to collaborate in the workforce, and she says she gained “partners, a mentor, money, experience, and friends.” The program also helped her build connections with a supervisor who could write her a letter of recommendation in the future. 

“The financial aid it has provided me and other members of the community has helped cover for personal costs,” she said. “SYEP not only is a major part for providing the youth with financial need, but also plays a big role in career developing pathways. ”

The mayor’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Mark Zustovich, a spokesman for the DYCD, said in an email to City Limits that “The city is facing an unprecedented health crisis,” and that it will make other efforts to offset the loss of SYEP. 

“DYCD will continue to work with our SYEP providers and the young people they serve to alleviate the effects of the suspension,” he said.