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Companies want to hire teenagers but COVID casts a shadow

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Nija Lott from Englewood has always wanted to get into the restaurant business. In 2018, the 16-year-old found what seemed like the perfect job at Matisse Chocolatier, a local supplier of chocolate trays and party food.

She loved the job and hoped to make her way into management. But then COVID hit. Matisse Chocolatier furloughed his employees and Lott was out of work for months.

It was a common problem for many young workers in New Jersey. But after two years of sour summer job markets, companies are cautiously optimistic about what 2022 holds.

Hotels, restaurants, summer camps and other employers say they are ready to increase temporary hiring. The main questions: Will COVID continue to recede, will labor shortages continue to disrupt the economy, and will the war in Ukraine put a damper on international hiring?

“Hopefully they’re ready to get back to work,” Craig Kunisch, owner of Mahwah Bar & Grill and a companion restaurant in Allendale, said of the teenage workers. “There was a level of complacency that is going to take a long time” to disperse.

Nationally, the summer employment rate for teens aged 16 to 19 fell to 31% in 2020, the lowest since the Great Recession, according to a report last year from Pew Research. Center.

The teen unemployment rate in the United States averaged 11.5% for the 12 months ending in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit. That figure jumped to 20.7% in February 2021, but fell back to 14.8% in February this year, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“At the moment, the outlook looks pretty good,” said AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist at Indeed Hiring Lab, a research arm of job board Indeed.com.

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While many companies still grapple with a lingering labor shortage, teens and other job seekers have much better bargaining power to demand higher wages and other benefits, Indeed wrote. in a January report.

Prospects for summer jobs

“It’s definitely a promising time for teenage workers,” Konkel said. “If there is a teenager who wants to find a job this summer, I think he will definitely have this opportunity.”

Most teens are employed in leisure, hospitality and retail, said Adam Kamins, an economist at Moody’s Analytics, the ratings agency. These sectors are embarking on hiring sprees to prepare for this spring and summer.

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In Westwood, the Pascack Valley Swim Club reopened in 2020 with only a reduced crew. Last year the club struggled to find enough lifeguards to accommodate a growing number of members, said president Theresa Rivers.

This year, Rivers added, the company has higher hopes, though it also faces higher costs due to an increase in New Jersey’s minimum wage as well as inflationary pressures.

“Everyone is looking for people and they can’t find them,” added Carol Rauscher, president of the Northern New Jersey Chamber of Commerce in Englewood.

The chamber runs a stipend program to help support youth employment in the city, providing about $2,000 each to local high school students to work part-time for six weeks. But it was suspended in 2020 and 2021.

The program helped subsidize Lott’s position at Matisse Chocolatier. The job was especially important to her family, she said in an interview, because her parents are disabled.

She survived the spring of 2020 on a tight budget and “everything I had on my account,” she recalls.

Lucille Skroce, the store’s owner, said she was able to rehire much of her staff. But she needs even more help now, just like many other business owners she knows.

“I need as many hands as possible,” she said. “I have a friend who owns a small bakery [in New York] She takes on all young adults, high school students, in her team.

Lott returned to work after several months off in 2020 and now works at the chocolate factory, while taking classes at Bergen Community College.

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Rough waters ahead

While the outlook looks brighter for 2022, North Jersey business owners said they are still worried about finding enough workers — of all ages — to fully staff operations in the weeks ahead.

Before COVID, “we always had a lot of superstar kids working for us,” said Paul Vagianos, owner of It’s Greek to Me restaurant in Ridgewood. “They normally walk through the door.”

But “they haven’t come through the door for the past two years,” added Vagianos, who is also a Ridgewood councilman. He and other local traders said employees have taken an extremely cautious approach to the health crisis, making it more difficult to find people willing to work.

“For the past two years, everything is COVID,” he said. “If you have a cough…or an ingrown toenail, COVID is the reason.”

The state tried to help last summer by temporarily easing restrictions on teen work hours. Companies were allowed to hire 16- and 17-year-olds for up to 50 hours a week with parental permission, instead of the normal 40-hour limit.

State Senator Steven Oroho, a Republican from Sussex, said he plans to introduce a bill in the Legislature to allow such flexibility again this year.

Ukrainian workers leave a hole

Even if domestic workers return, the invasion of Ukraine threatens to further disrupt the summer labor market.

Many Jersey Shore summer camps and businesses have come to depend on Ukrainian and Russian teenagers in the United States on J-1 summer work visas. The invasion left this pool of potential employees in limbo.

In 2019, nearly 5,300 J-1 employees came to work in New Jersey. That figure fell to just 245 in 2020 and rebounded to 2,008 last year, according to the US State Department.

For Ephram Caflun of Ridgewood — the director of Camp Wekeela in Hartford, Maine — the shortage of J-1 visas has forced him to cut some activities.

“In years [past] we sent our gymnastics or archery instructors overseas,” said Caflun, whose camp hosts hundreds of children and camp staff from New Jersey each summer. “We haven’t been able to offer archery the last two summers.”

Yet he sees room for hope. Caflun is attracting strong interest among teenagers for counselor positions. This year, he said, he believes the camp can return to some degree of normalcy.