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Teens have long been vital to filling out the summertime staff of restaurants, ice cream stands, amusement parks and camps.
Now, thanks to one of the tightest labor markets in decades, they have even more sway, with an array of jobs to choose from at ever higher wages.
To ease the labor crunch, some states are moving to roll back restrictions to let teens work more hours and, in some cases, more hazardous jobs — much to the chagrin of labor rights groups, who see it as a troubling trend.
Economists say there are other ways to expand the workforce without putting more of a burden on kids, including by allowing more legal immigration.
At Funtown Splashtown USA, an amusement park in southern Maine, teens play a critical role in keeping the attractions open, which isn't as easy as it used to be.
General Manager Cory Hutchinson anticipates hiring about 350 workers this summer, including many local high schoolers, compared with more than 500 in past summers.
"We literally do not have enough people to staff the place seven days a week and into the evenings," he said. This summer, Funtown Splashtown will only be open six days a week, and will close at 6 p.m., instead of 9 p.m.
In April, nearly 34 percent of Americans aged 16 to 19 had jobs, according to government data. That compares with 30 percent four years ago, the last pre-pandemic summer.
More jobs are available for those who want them: There are roughly 1.6 jobs open for every person that is unemployed, according to the Labor Department. In normal times, that ratio is about 1:1.
At RideAway Adventures on Cape Cod, which offers kayak, bike and paddleboard rentals and tours, finding enough teen workers hasn't been a challenge. Owner Mike Morrison chalks it up to the fact that RideAway is a desirable place to work compared with other options.
"They're not washing dishes and they get to be outside and active," Morrison said.
Plus, while he typically starts off new teen hires at $15 an hour, the state's minimum wage, he will bump up the pay of hard workers by as much as 50 cents per hour toward the end of July to help keep them through the end of summer.
Maxen Lucas, a graduating senior at Lincoln Academy in Maine, had his first job at 15 as a summer camp dishwasher, followed by a stint as a grocery bagger before getting into landscaping. He said young workers can be choosier now.
"After Covid settled down, everyone was being paid more," said the 18-year-old from Nobleboro who'll head off to Maine Maritime Academy this fall.
Indeed, hourly pay jumped about 5 percent in April from a year ago at restaurants, retailers and amusement parks, the industries likely to employ teens. Before the pandemic, pay in these industries typically rose no more than 3 percent annually.
Addison Beer, 17, will work this summer at the Virginia G. Piper branch of the Boys & Girls Club in Scottsdale, Arizona, where she feels a strong connection with colleagues and the kids she helps out.
Because of a scheduling conflict, she temporarily took a job at Zinburger, a restaurant that was desperate for workers. "They just asked me a few questions and were like, 'Oh, you're hired!'" she said.
For many teens, the point of a summer job doesn't have to be about finding the highest pay available.
"Having a job is just so I can sustain myself, be more independent, not rely on my parents too much," said Christopher Au, 19, who has been dishing out ice cream at a J.P. Licks in Boston for the past few months.
New Jersey passed a law in 2022 allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to work up to 50 hours per week during the summer, when the state's shore economy swells with tourists. The previous limit was 40 hours per week.
The measure has earned praise from parents.
Sally Rutherford, 56, of North Wildwood, New Jersey, said her 17-year-old son, Billy, was excited about the change. With the money he earns working as a game operator at a Jersey Shore amusement park, he'll be able to help pay for a car.
"It makes him much more independent and responsible," she said.
In just the past six months, 2 million Americans who had been out of the workforce have taken jobs or started looking for one. The share of Americans aged 25 through 54 who are working or job-hunting is now above pre-pandemic levels.
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