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Liam Price, 16, washes dishes in the kitchen of Donita's Cantina as owner Kay Peterson Cook works in the background on August 10, 2019. After 30 years in the historic Elk Mountain House building, Cook is closing Donita's in September. The lease went up 50% Cook said, and that along with a shortage of labor is causing her to close. Already short-handed, Cook closes Donita's twice a week to save money. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

CRESTED BUTTE — Crested Butte is jammed with visitors during this former mining town’s busiest time of year. Impatient drivers fume on the clogged 15-mile-per-hour streets. Lines string out of restaurant doors. Espresso machines belch incessant steam as baristas race to fill cups. And the bins at ice cream shops are scooped to the bottom.

And yet, in all this commercial hustle and bustle, “Closed” signs dangle from the doors and windows of some of this town’s busiest shops. There aren’t enough workers to stay open full-time. Some businesses are having to shut down early, open late, or keep the doors closed for one or two days a week.

It would be even worse, business owners say, if it weren’t for the kids.

Brendan Hartigen, 14, works alongside his father, Sean Hartigen, filling water glasses for customers at The Last Steep Bar & Grill on Elk Avenue in Crested Butte, Colorado on August 6, 2019. Sean and his wife, Sarah, who co-own The Last Steep, employ several pre-high-schoolers—friends of Brendan. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Crested Butte’s teens have stepped up and taken jobs at local businesses in numbers not seen before. This year a majority of the incoming freshman class of 72 students at the Crested Butte Community School is up to its elbows in dish water, scrambling to bus tables, ringing up sunscreen and T-shirt sales, and stocking shelves. Many are saving up wages — reportedly equal to what older hirees are paid — for a school trip to Scotland next year.

“I haven’t seen this many teenagers working in town ever. It’s like the businesses here have found a new vein of gold they can tap in what once was a mining town,” said Mark Reaman, editor of the Crested Butte News. His paper reported last week, through a business head count, that 75% of 14-year-old incoming freshmen at the Crested Butte Community School are currently working around town.

“Gosh, that really bucks some national trends,” said Ryan Gedney, senior economist with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

The department does not break down employment numbers for the teen demographic so there is no official number to quantify Crested Butte’s young-worker phenomenon. The closest the department comes is tallying workers under 30. In 2015, the last year state figures are available, 22% of Crested Butte residents under age 30 were employed.

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Crested Butte is small enough that residents and visitors know official numbers don’t apply. Youngsters are omnipresent in businesses up and down Elk Avenue where the ski-town dynamic has flipped, and summers are now the busiest time of year.

“Workers are getting younger and younger,” said Sean Hartigen, co-owner of the Last Steep Bar & Grill. He and his wife, Sarah, employ a squad of pre-high-schoolers — friends of their 14-year-old son.

Going back in history, workers were even younger. In Crested Butte’s mining heyday, kids as young as 6 worked in the mines, but that was before modern labor laws.

Under current Colorado law, 14-year-olds can work non-hazardous jobs in retail, offices and restaurants. The law specifies that they can also operate elevators.

Twelve-year-olds can babysit, sell things door-to-door, garden, and do agricultural work. At the age of 9, kids can shine shoes, deliver handbills, garden or caddy at a golf course.

The law also allows children of business owners to help out in family businesses at any age. 

“There are a lotta, lotta teens working all over town,” confirmed Kay Peterson Cook, who has worked for 40 years at Donita’s Cantina, first as an employee and now as its owner. She currently relies on half a dozen 14- to 17-year-olds to keep Donita’s running five days a week; she doesn’t have enough employees to stay open more than that.

Ellie Duryea, 14, waits tables in Donita’s Cantina on Elk Avenue in Crested Butte, Colorado on August 10, 2019. Ellie and her sister Lucy both work at Donita’s. Owner Kay Peterson Cook hires high school students because older workers while willing to work can’t find affordable places to live in this resort town at the base of Mt.Crested Butte. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Next door, Mountain Earth Whole Foods has five 14-year-olds on the payroll to help keep products on the shelves and the door open.

This teen workforce has become a lifeline in Crested Butte because the high-school set has something many older employees struggle with around Crested Butte: a place to live, thanks to mom and dad.

Housing costs have climbed, rental costs have shot up, and 220 short-term rentals have eaten up some long-time employee housing. That lack of housing has led to fewer workers who can afford to stick around Crested Butte.

“It’s our biggest problem. There is no doubt about that,” said Crested Butte Mayor Jim Schmidt, who admitted it’s tough to walk around town and see all the closed signs during the busiest season.

Gunnison County and the towns of Crested Butte and Mount Crested Butte have been pressing forward on many fronts to increase affordable housing projects, but they aren’t going up fast enough to help keep the doors open every day at Lil’s Sushi Bar, the Avalanche Bar & Grill or The Wooden Nickel steak house.

“Since the 1970s we have never had to do this, but now we have to close on Sundays,” said an upset Kerri Councilman, an adult who works at the Wooden Nickel.

She said without the high-school employees prepping salads in the kitchen the door would be locked on more days than Sunday.

Emma Jean Lovett, 16, works at Paradox Footwear on Elk Avenue in Crested Butte. Longtime Paradox employee DeeDee Quiggle said the store has been hiring high school students for two years and she relishes working with the young people. “Their brains are wired for learning.” (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Down the street at Paradox Footwear, three high school students fetch shoes from the back room for customers. One of the students has been tasked with running the cash register and now has enough experience to open and close the store.

“We’ve been hiring high school workers for two years. But I think they are taking on more and more responsibility at many places,” said longtime Paradox employee DeeDee Quiggle, who relishes working with the youngsters.

“Their brains are wired for learning. It’s easy for them to learn new things,” she said. “And they’re funny.”

It is also obvious that they are very busy. They are so intent on scrambling to bus tables and fill orders and keep waiting customers happy that they don’t have time to chat about their jobs with a reporter.

Sidewalks on Elk Avenue in Crested Butte, Colorado bustle with visitors on August 6, 2019. A lack of housing has led to fewer full time employees able to work the stores and restaurants of Crested Butte. A teen workforce has become a lifeline. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Octopus Coffee owner Alexis Bauer is concerned that so much of the workforce in Crested Butte’s retail stores and restaurants is under the age of 18. In a letter to the town of Crested Butte, she said she fears for the workers’ safety — and the safety of customers — because the high schoolers don’t have enough experience or training.

One of her 14-year-old employees splits her working time between Octopus and Scout’s General, a modern version of a general store. Manager Dan Swansinger said he sees big plusses in having the young workers: for one thing, they can teach him new tricks on his iPad checkout system.

Hartigen said at the Last Steep his young workers are turning out to be hard workers and are pivotal to keeping his business open. He said they are also happy to be making money — good money.

“Everybody thinks they are cute,” he said. “And they are tipping them all the time.”