When I was 17, on the tail end of my senior year in high school, I got my first job at a local Italian sandwich shop. The job paid $7.25 an hour, the New York State minimum wage at the time, and the owner only allowed us to keep tips that were left for us in cash; he pocketed whatever tips customers wrote in on their credit card receipts.
Though many of the labor conditions that made my sandwich gig less than ideal haven’t changed since then—the federal minimum wage, for example, is still a meager $7.25—teenagers are about to enter what appears to be a golden age for summer jobs. The combination of mass business reopenings and an apparent shortage of adult workers has led to a surge in teen employment, according to the New York Times. Some 256,000 teens ages 16 to 19 got new jobs in April, making up the lion’s share of newly employed people across age groups, a trend that could continue into the next few months: The Times predicts “this might be the best summer in years” for job-seeking teens.
For teens this doesn’t mean just more job opportunities, but better ones, too. Faced with throngs of customers eager to shop, drink, dine, and revel as the pandemic finally begins to recede, some employers have begun to raise their wages and offer new hires more benefits and perks. A Pittsburg amusement park raised their starting hourly wage for high school grads by $9 from last summer, and threw in free season passes as a bonus. Officials in Henderson, Kentucky, raised the starting salary for the city’s lifeguards from $8.50 to $10 to attract more applicants.
Unfortunately, the majority of the kids benefitting from the teen job boom are white teens, the Times reports: Black teens aren’t seeing the same dramatic increases in employment, and Hispanic teens are seeing job losses. Experts say it’s also very possible that the boom will be short-lived. “There may be what will surely be a brief positive effect, as young people can move into a lot of jobs where adults have receded for whatever reason,” Joseph McLaughlin, research and evaluation director at the Boston Private Industry Council, told the Times. “It’s going to be temporary, because we always take care of the adults first.”
Still, there’s some hope that the economic shifts some teens are experiencing become more widespread, leading to higher wages and improved benefits and conditions for workers of all ages (as well as all races and ethnicities). When conservatives complain about Americans who won’t return to work because unemployment benefits are higher than their wages, they aren’t wrong, strictly speaking—they’re merely placing the blame on the wrong party. If companies need workers they’ll have to start paying living wages. And many of them are, which proves that they could afford to do it all along: I needn’t have made paninis for $7.25 an hour.