As it struggles to staff up ahead of its May 22 opening, Valleyfair is boosting the starting pay for some positions to $15 an hour.

The wage increase at the amusement park in Shakopee is for food and beverage workers who are at least 16 years old. The park also hires some 14- and 15-year-olds, but they are not allowed to handle some machinery, such as fryers.

In recent weeks, Valleyfair had already bumped up the starting wage from $11.25 to $13.50 for food-service workers. But executives decided they needed to go even further to $15 to compete against other employers in the Twin Cities. With a little more than two weeks until opening for 2021, Valleyfair is still looking to hire another 300 people.

Last week, Punch Pizza, the Twin Cities-based chain of about a dozen restaurants, raised its starting wage to $15 an hour. And in March, Shooting Star Casino in northwest Minnesota raised its minimum wage to $16 an hour.

In recent years, several companies from Amazon to Target have also increased their entry-level wages to $15 an hour. At the same time, some cities such as Minneapolis and St. Paul are also phasing in $15 minimum wages over the next several years.

Hennepin County has gone even further and recently bumped its starting wage for government employees to $20 an hour.

As hiring ramps up following a year of steep job losses, some employers say they are encountering difficulty filling positions as some workers are reluctant to return to in-person workplaces and as things like virtual schooling continue to put pressure on family schedules.

At Valleyfair, where filling seasonal jobs is always a challenge, recruiters and managers are also contending with parents who may be hesitant to have their teens work because of COVID-19 concerns, Melissa Lutz, Valleyfair's human resources director, said. And the park has a perpetual problem with a lack of easy public transportation.

"Our location in the southwest metro is really difficult to recruit from," Lutz said.

"We have the natural boundary of the river, which everybody is nervous about taking a job over the river," she added, referring to the Minnesota River that divides the suburb from bigger neighbors such as Bloomington and Eden Prairie.

Also because of the pandemic, Valleyfair won't be able to bring in hundreds of international students as it usually does every summer.

Valleyfair typically hires about 425 international students every summer and houses them on-site in dorms. They come from all over the world, with large contingents from Ecuador, Jamaica and Dominican Republic, Lutz said.

She had been hoping to bring in about half that many this year, but realized last week the park will only get a handful at most. International students have to get an interview at a U.S. embassy in order to secure a visa. But many embassies are either closed, operating at reduced hours or focused on other visa programs, Lutz said.

Two years ago, Valleyfair recruited retired seniors to work a few hours in the mornings. But they ruled that out this year because of the pandemic.

Valleyfair is holding an in-person, socially distanced hiring event at the park on May 16. As an added perk, attendees, who have to apply in advance, will get to spend the rest of the afternoon having fun in the park before it opens to the public.

Punch Pizza, which has not yet reopened for indoor dining, was able to call back enough workers to be adequately staffed to provide takeout service, co-owner John Puckett said.

The decision to raise its starting wage to $15, which was much as a $4 bump for some workers, was more to reward current employees, he said. The move will increase its labor spending by 10%, or around a half-million dollars, but Puckett says he thinks it will pay off.

"If we have the best people, we think we're going to make it back in sales and better customer delight and loyalty," he said.

He didn't make the change to get a short-term bump in applications. But he acknowledged that he had seen a slowing response to job postings in recent months.

"But as you can imagine, that exploded when we made the [wage] announcement," he said.