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    $15 minimum wage could have big impact on teens

    Norma Meza is part of the 34 percent of Massachusetts teens who work — down from 54 percent in 1999.
    Jim Davis/Globe Staff
    Norma Meza is part of the 34 percent of Massachusetts teens who work — down from 54 percent in 1999.

    Charlestown High School junior Norma Meza works 10 hours a week as a student organizer in Dorchester, and every payday she hands the check to her father.

    Her father, who has been raising Norma and her younger sister since their mother died earlier this year, works at a garden center and relies on Norma’s minimum-wage job to help pay the bills. Most of the money she brings home every two weeks, about $180, goes toward rent, Internet expenses, and her sister’s art supplies.

    Norma, 17, wishes she could contribute more, especially to help pay for her sister’s asthma and eczema medications.

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    “My dad needs me,” she said.

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    Teens like her — those who work, and live in households with roughly $47,000 or less in annual income — account for nearly 18 percent of their families’ total income, according to a report set to be released Tuesday by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.

    Many of these teens — and some of their parents — earn the state’s minimum wage, which a year ago was raised to $11 an hour. Proposals to bump it up to $15 already are in the works. If state legislators don’t take action, the issue is on track to be put before voters in the fall.

    But it’s unclear whether a higher wage would help or hurt teens.

    Business organizations that oppose a wage hike say fewer employers will hire teens if they have to pay them $15 an hour, which would mean less work experience, potentially leading to lower future earnings.

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    Proponents note that, historically, teen employment doesn’t decline when the minimum wage rises. And, they say, in addition to allowing lower-income teens to contribute more to their families financially, a bigger paycheck would allow college students to work less, study more, and ultimately be more successful.

    Far fewer teens work than they once did. In 1999, nearly 54 percent of teens in Massachusetts had a job; last year, less than 34 percent did. This decline, echoed nationwide, is attributed to several factors, including a decreased interest in working, more jobs being filled by older workers and immigrants, and teens spending more time trying to get into college.

    More than 104,000 teens between the ages of 16 and 19 work in Massachusetts, according to the report, accounting for 12 percent of those earning minimum wage.

    Several studies have found that minimum wage increases lead to job losses, including one from the National Bureau of Economic Research that detailed a 2 percent decline in teen employment for every 10 percent increase in the minimum wage. But studies that more carefully control for other factors affecting employment have not found a significant impact on teen jobs, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center report.

    “It’s not the minimum wage that matters, it’s the overall condition of the economy that drives the employment of both teens and nonteens,” said Arthur MacEwan, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

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    Still, as the Massachusetts minimum wage rose in recent years, a number of local employers cut back on hiring teens, said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. A $3 raise over a three-year period, coupled with a new requirement to offer workers paid sick time, has created a greater focus on hiring more experienced, and more reliable, workers, he said. And given the fact that Massachusetts is one of 11 states that doesn’t have a lower minimum wage for teens, and is one of only two states that requires employers to pay workers time and a half on Sundays and holidays, employers are even less likely to hire young workers.

    “The deck is increasingly becoming stacked against the teens,” Hurst said.

    Hurst is in favor of a lower teen minimum wage, which in other states ranges anywhere from 50 cents to more than $3 below the standard minimum wage. It’s sound economic policy, he said.

    “We’ve got to start having some common-sense public policy to understand that not every employee is a breadwinner of a family of four,” Hurst said. “It doesn’t fit in the real world.”

    But MacEwan said having a sub-minimum wage for teens could lead employers to hire fewer older, more expensive workers.

    “What it says to me is that we’d rather have the teenagers employed than the adults,” he said. “This would give employers an incentive to substitute teens both for the elderly and other low-income workers.”

    At Herrell’s Ice Cream in Northampton, teenagers still make up the bulk of the workforce, and owner Judy Herrell plans to keep it that way. But as labor costs have crept up, she has watched other employers stop hiring them, and she worries about what would happen if the minimum wage hits $15.

    Only one in four of the teens Herrell hires works out, she said, and having to pay $15 an hour to train someone who probably will soon be gone is costly. Compensating for a higher minimum wage would also mean raising prices, again, and potentially reducing staff, which could result in fewer customers and longer wait times.

    Herrell supported the statewide raise to $11 but favors a lower teen wage. Youth from low-income families will really suffer if pay goes up but no one will hire them, she said.

    She said they benefit from the workplace training they get in their first jobs — learning basic skills like counting back change, as well as the importance of being reliable and responsible — and are generally her best staffers.

    “Everybody is trying to figure out how to have fewer employees,” Herrell said.

    “This is the absolute last population that I want to cut out of hiring because they, one, need it the most, and, two, are the ones who are working the hardest.”

    Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.