A day camp counselor must welcome children in the morning and keep that happy smile on her face the entire day. She comforts crying kids when they want their parents, wipes their drippy noses, changes campers into their bathing suits, watches them swim with the hot sun beating down on her, then changes the children out of their wet bathing suits and of course takes kids to the bathroom every five minutes. She makes sure all the kids have proper lunch, cleans their faces and hands after they eat, cleans up accidents, tidies the bunk room from the large messes that are made throughout the day and entertains campers for six-to-seven hours every day, five days a week. As the day goes on, a day camp counselor gets filthier and filthier. She is covered in sweat, glue, dirt, chlorine, paint and food from children’s sticky hands. Yet, a counselor’s pay often does not match the difficulty of the work.
Counselors are mostly paid below minimum wage, especially if they are younger than 18. There is a further imbalance in that counselors are paid by age, so that a 17-year-old gets more money per week than a 14-year-old, without regard to the quality of her work.
To be clear, this payment plan is perfectly legal. The Fair Labor Standards Act, which establishes minimum wage and ensures overtime pay for workers, has an exemption for “seasonal and recreational establishments,” such as summer camps. However, each state must confirm this exemption individually. New Jersey law states, “New Employees (not including minors under 18 years of age) engaged in seasonal amusement occupations within the state of New Jersey shall be paid at minimum wage.” This implies that adults require minimum wage but that minors do not, so paying teenage day camp counselors below minimum wage is legal. “Age” discrimination, that is, different pay scales based on age, is also legal because, in general, laws against age discrimination apply to people over the age of 40, not to minors.
Being paid below minimum wage and “age” discrimination are both legal, but are they fair? One former camp counselor who worked in camp for two years, one year as a CIT and the other year as junior counselor, stopped working because: “It was a very tiring job, and even though I liked working with kids, I didn’t feel it was worth the pay. I also didn’t feel appreciated.”
According to Rabbi Wallace Greene, whose career in summer camps spanned over seven camps and 40 years, many teenagers choose to work as counselors anyway because: “Camp is a wonderful experience on many levels, especially if parents had a good camp experience [kids will want to do it too]. It is also a safe and Jewish environment.” He added that when meals, snacks and tips are taken into account, the compensation is actually greater.
The former day camp counselor, who said she felt unappreciated, also noted, however, that “the people who got paid less were often doing the harder work. CITs and junior counselors did the work their senior counselors told them, and it was harder to get a break.” The younger workers sometimes worked harder than the older workers, yet received less money. Rabbi Greene explained, however, that there is a general assumption that older kids have more experience, so they are being paid not for their age or quality of work but for their perceived experience. He also noted that it is a question of supply and demand. Camps pay more to older teenagers who have other work options because they want to attract the best, most experienced counselors. However, the former counselor feels that this is taking advantage of the young teens because “there aren’t many summer jobs” for them. One mother, whose daughters have served as counselors for the past ten years, formulated the dilemma as follows: “I do want my teenage daughter to have a productive summer, but I don’t want her to be exploited by camps offering an ‘opportunity’ to work. Her hard work should be acknowledged and compensated appropriately.”
Although perhaps parents of the counselors want their kids to be paid more, parents of the campers don’t want the price of camp to become too burdensome. There is no simple solution, and although wage reform for teenage day camp counselors should be considered, for now, underappreciated counselors and their hard work should at least be recognized. Giving a great counselor a generous trip at the end of the summer is a good way to recognize excellent performance.
Bergenfield’s Sara Schapiro is a recent graduate of Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls and an incoming freshman at Stern College for Women.
By Sara Schapiro