At first blush, looking for work when you have a restricted diet can be daunting. But if teens think beyond the obvious, they can find plenty of opportunities.
FOR a teenager, a summer job is a rite of passage – a start to transitioning into the adult world – and a chance to earn some cash of one’s own. It’s almost cliché that a first job will be at a fast-food restaurant. But as much as server and kitchen skills can teach a lot, for teenagers with food allergies, such a job is often not the right fit.
Consider the experience of 16-year-old Michael Mandanas. The teen thought it would be great to work for a Chinese restaurant that he and his family frequented in their town north of Oklahoma City. After all, the restaurant was quite aware of his multiple food allergies. But ordering a safe meal and working in that kitchen proved to be two different experiences. “After my first week, I had an appointment with my allergist, who immediately asked me to leave the job,” says Michael. The reason? “I’d been working with takeout boxes of food with all my allergens.”
When Andrea Schmidt, 17, began her search for a summer job in New Hampshire’s Seacoast Region, she was worried because of her multiple food allergies. “All of my friends’ jobs involve food, and I didn’t think I would be able to find any job that didn’t. I wanted to be a hostess at a restaurant, but I wasn’t comfortable with having to clean tables.”
Canadian student Mariam Elmi took a summer position three years ago, not in food services, but as a counselor at a Muslim Association of Canada summer camp near Ottawa. But food exposures became a concern. The 21-year-old has a dairy allergy and recalls that the camp often held cooking workshops – and milk products were common ingredients. “During lunch, I had to eat in the staff room to reduce and avoid cross-contamination,” she says.
Yet teens and college students with allergies who are hunting for summer jobs or internships need not despair. There are many opportunities with employers who can accommodate your avoidance needs – and there’s likely a job out there for you. The employment search just requires more creativity and selectivity – and looking beyond the most obvious choices. For instance, Andrea didn’t end up working as a restaurant employee, but instead got a job in the gift shop of a water park.
“The only food the gift shop sold was packaged candy and drinks, so I didn’t think there would be issues,” she told Allergic Living. There weren’t, and she was also able to keep her epinephrine auto-injector by her side at work.
Jobs That Work Well for Allergies
When starting the job or internship search, young people with food allergies need to consider not just the type of job, the pay and the hours, but whether accommodations are feasible. While there is legal protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s also best to consider the jobs practical fit. You do want to feel comfortable in the environment where will be spending your summer work hours. Let me state the obvious: a dairy-allergic teen probably won’t want to working an ice cream shop.
The good news is that there remain plenty of other employment opportunities. Allergic Living interviewed two dozen students with allergies about their job experiences and heard largely positive tales. The types of work varied. Office work – ranging from receptionist duties to data input and social media posting – proved popular, as food issues tended to be more easily accommodated. Those with superior computer skills may find opportunities in HTML coding, website assistance and video creation. Other possible jobs include working at recreation centers, in retail (sales or stockroom) or as a delivery person.
Some teens seek out unpaid internships to gain experience pertinent to a college major. Chicagoan Sage Kugler, 16, has multiple food allergies – from nuts to peanuts to many seeds and beans. She found an internship in an art studio, which worked out well – since no food was used in any of the art lessons.
My son, Morgan Smith, is a 21-year-old with multiple food allergies. Last summer, he worked as a part-time intern for the city council in Colorado Springs, and was pleased that food was never present during his work hours in this busy office.
Many of the young people interviewed found working as a camp counselor, especially one that caters to children with food allergies, to be a great fit. Michael Cuoto, a Massachusetts college student, has worked at Camp Wingate Kirkland in Cape Cod for a few years. The camp is completely nut- and sesame-free and accommodates several other food allergies. Other benefits are a team of on-site nurses and a whole staff trained to use epinephrine, as well as the fact that this camp is close to a hospital.
Michael, 22, and another counselor with allergies were highly positive about the experience of working in this environment where people “get” their allergies. Plus, he notes: “The chef is incredible. He knows every single person’s allergy.”
However, even in accommodating workplaces, students need to remain vigilant. Lauren Solinsky, 21, has allergies to sesame, tree nuts and various fruits. For two years the student who is from Connecticut worked as a counselor at another allergy-aware camp. Despite having a chef dedicated to cooking safe meals for those with food allergies, one evening the food served for dinner was not safe for Lauren to eat. She told a director and the kitchen staff: “It is important that I eat because I’m in charge of 10 third graders.”
She ended up going hungry since the dinner hour had ended and she needed to get back to work. While unfortunate, the mistake didn’t happen again, and she still recalls the staff as generally “very understanding and willing to go the extra mile.”
How and When To Explain Food Allergies
Sixteen-year-old Shane Word of Atlanta, is diagnosed with idiopathic anaphylaxis. In other words, he is susceptible to a severe allergic reaction for which the exact food trigger is not clear. As he enters the work world of employment this summer, Shane says he is ready to discuss his food allergies with an employer – but only “on the second or third interview after they know me.”
With the best of intentions, some parents want their teens to disclose their allergies proactively at the employment interview. Yet even the website of FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education), the largest non-profit representing food allergies, supports the view that the allergy information is usually best shared after you are hired.
FARE’s website suggests, “When you are hired, speak to your supervisor about your food allergies and discuss any reasonable accommodations you may need in order to perform your job. They can advise you if your human resources department requires documentation for your accommodations.”
Kristi Grim, FARE’s national programs manager, explains that “generally you wouldn’t request accommodations until they are needed. Since most individuals with food allergies would not require accommodations during the application or interview process, that typically means you’d be requesting accommodations once hired rather than during the job-seeking process.”
Telling a potential employer about food allergies at the interview stage can be an advantage in certain situations. For instance, if you’re applying to be a counselor at a camp that caters to kids with food allergies, then personal experience with the condition might make your application stand out.
Once on the job, “the most important thing for any teen with a food allergy is to take the steps they need to stay safe,” says Grim. It’s important that you inform a supervisor and preferably also a colleague about your condition and show them how to use your epinephrine and where you keep it.
“I told everyone about my food allergies when I started,” says Marisa Sprague, 23, of the high school job she had at a day camp. “I told staff members where my EpiPen was,” recalls the Massachusetts resident who’s studying to be a teacher. She explained symptoms and also a hand signal – “my hand to my throat, which I said was to indicate I’m having a reaction in case I can’t breathe.”
An important part of any job interview is to find out what tasks the position entails. Some young people do find jobs require accommodations to avoid allergen exposures. For instance, at a software company where my son Morgan worked one summer, the firm supplied nut snacks in an open bowl for employees. He simply explained his allergy to his boss, and asked that the nut snacks be put away while he was employed there because of previous contact reactions. His boss was happy to oblige, and provided pretzels for staff instead.
On a positive note, among the students I spoke to across the country and into Canada, all found their former summer employers quite willing to make reasonable accommodations. Whether it was hand-washing, the removal of allergens in the workplace, or the ability to keep an epinephrine auto-injector nearby, a conversation with an employer was all that was necessary.
While this wasn’t a comprehensive survey, the interviews show the benefits of calmly and clearly explaining your condition and the few needs that you will have to stay safe as a valued employee. It’s important to bear in mind that an accommodation for an employee can’t be made unless the employer is aware of the food allergies.
Above and Beyond to Ensure Safety
Explaining food allergies to a boss or co-workers becomes easier if that person has personal experience with allergies or similar conditions. “I was lucky to have people with severe allergies and celiac as my crew leaders, so they understood my situation and were very helpful in making sure I was safe and taken care of,” says Grace Hardwick, 16, who worked with the Boulder, Colorado Junior Rangers program.
Sage Kugler’s boss at the art studio knew about bee venom allergy and carrying an auto-injector. “I reminded her about what an allergic reaction looks like with hives and your throat closing up,” says Sage. She told her co-workers about her multiple food allergens and felt comfortable simply requesting that they wash their hands after eating.
The first job that Mariam Elmi, the dairy-allergic Canadian student, landed went way beyond her expectations of safety. In a position with a teen employee program at the local Ottawa Police Service, “my supervisor was phenomenal.” That supervisor declared Mariam’s section of the workplace dairy-free, learned about food allergies and how to administer an auto-injector, and instituted a food allergy emergency plan.
For parents, it’s difficult to allow our children to grow up and away from us, especially when they will possibly come in contact with their food allergens. However, taking a summer job is a milestone along the road to adulthood. In the case of those with food allergies, it’s also a key learning experience for how to ask for reasonable accommodations of an employer and to speak up to co-workers. In other words, part of the grown-up job of keeping oneself safe in the workplace.
Sidebar: Students’ Advice for the Job Hunt
For those teens with food allergies in search of their first summer job, students who are not long past that experience have great suggestions:
“Food allergies are’t a limiting factor unless you’re working in food production or service,” offers college student Cyrus Moassessi, who studies in California and hails from Nevada. “I’d suggest to a teen to keep communicating with your co-workers about your food allergies” to ensure safety.
When he was in high school, the 18-year-old found working in an office environment as an intern was the best situation. “I didn’t deal with food of any kind,” he says. Cyrus asked his co-workers to clean up after themselves if they ate in their workspace as a primary way to keep himself safe with his multiple food allergies.
Sage Kugler suggests, “Find a job that you are most comfortable in. Talk to the manager and say you have food allergies. And make sure to know how to administer your auto-injector.”
Michael Mandanas notes that the first job is an introduction to the real world without parents looking out for you.
“When you go off to college or get a job, you will have to deal with being exposed to your allergens one way or another. Just be aware of what’s going on around you and be proactive in keeping yourself safe.”
First published in Allergic Living magazine; learn about the new e-magazine here.