Bill Nemitz: GOP bills exploit kids in workplace

Portland Press Herald

By Bill Nemitz

Staff Writer

Talk about a diversionary tactic.

While Gov. Paul LePage has much of Maine in a lather over where he’s hiding the now infamous Department of Labor lobby mural (pssst … look in the electrical closet!), Republicans in the Legislature are hard at work ramming through something infinitely more troubling.

They want to put Maine’s kids to work longer, later and for less money.

“It undermines what Gov. LePage and others have said about student success,” said Sarah Standiford, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby, shortly after “An Act to Enhance Access to the Workplace for Minors” landed with a thud Tuesday in the inbox of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.

The bill, also known as L.D. 1346, is sponsored by Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting. But before we hold our noses and unwrap that one, let’s first review how child workers have already fared before the committee this session.

Last week, in a 7-6 party-line vote, the committee endorsed another bill sponsored by Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden.

That measure, now on its way to the Senate, would increase from 20 to 24 the number of hours students over 16 can work during a school week (Plowman originally wanted to raise the maximum to a sleep-deprived 32 hours) and push quitting time on a school night from 10 to (yawn) 11 p.m.

Lobbyists for Maine’s hospitality industry, no surprise, strongly supported that measure. Opponents, led by the Maine Women’s Lobby, happen to think kids learn best in school when they’re not nodding off at their desks.

But Plowman’s bill, it turns out, was just the beginning. Rep. Burns, who did not respond to an interview request Tuesday, apparently thinks Maine’s kids are not only underworked, but also overpaid.

And how would Burns correct this, ahem, problem?

Well, he’d remove any limit whatsoever on the number of hours kids over 16 can work on a school day – the current limit is four on most days and eight on the last school day of the week.

He’d raise from three to four the maximum hours kids under 16 can work on a school day.

And finally – listen up, kids – he’d whack the pay for any high school student under the age of 20 from Maine’s $7.50-per-hour minimum wage to a “training wage” of $5.25-per-hour for the first 180 days on the job.

Think about it.

Junior gets a summer job just after Memorial Day washing dishes at the local seafood restaurant. He works until Labor Day – a period of, give or take, 100 days.

Under current law, if Junior works 40 hours a week for those 14 weeks, his minimum-wage translates into a hard-earned $4,200.

Pay him a “training wage” for the same period and the same work? Just like that, he’s down to $2,940.

Now to be fair, there’s nothing illegal about telling kids their sweat is worth less. Federal minimum-wage law allows employers to pay workers under 20 a “youth minimum wage” of $4.25 an hour for their first 90 days – a path down which many states, including Maine, have long refused to go.

Burns’ bill, however, is one clever piece of lawmaking: It sidesteps the federal minimums by tossing the kids an extra buck an hour, yet doubles the duration of their low-wage servitude to the point where it encompasses Maine’s entire summer tourist season – and then some.

Even Richard Grotton, president of the Maine Restaurant Association, raised an eyebrow Tuesday when he heard about the latest attempt to, as Burns’ bill so euphemistically puts it, “enhance” kids’ access to the workplace.

While the restaurateurs wholeheartedly supported Plowman’s attempt to pack more work hours into a child’s school day, Grotton said paying them only 70 percent of the minimum wage for their first six months is “probably too little and probably too long.”

In other words, I wouldn’t bet on this transparent attempt to pay kids less because, well, we can.

But at the same time, if I were the parent of a working high schooler, I’d keep a close eye on these equally lamebrained efforts to beef up businesses’ bottom lines by cutting into the time kids have to sleep, do their homework and enjoy what we’re always telling them are “the best years of your lives.”

Before the Republican majority on the Labor Committee gave a thumbs-up to Plowman’s bill last week, Laura Harper, public policy director for the Maine Women’s Lobby, tried to impress upon lawmakers the tightrope our kids walk as they transition from the classroom to the workplace.

Citing no fewer than eight published studies, Harper said the data consistently show that holding down a job while in high school is actually a good thing for most kids – up to a point:

One study, appearing in the “American Educational Research Journal,” found that kids who work between one and 15 hours per week are actually more likely to complete high school. Pass the 15-hour mark, however, and the dropout rate starts to rise.

Ditto for another study in “Sociology of Education” that found “intensive work involvement” of more than 20 hours a week leads to higher numbers of kids giving up on school.

Then there’s the “Journal of Educational Research” study that found a direct correlation between hours worked and academic performance – the more the hours go up, the more grades and standardized test scores go down.

Meanwhile, as Harper noted in a recent letter to the committee, “no evidence presented suggests that there is an unskilled labor shortage in this state.”

So why try to squeeze more hours for less money out of our kids?

The Republicans, from Gov. LePage on down, want us to believe it’s all in the name of economic development.

But if you ever see that Labor Department mural again, look at the panel depicting a knot of children, one with bandages on her hands, standing outside a montage of early 20th-century sweatshops.

That’s not economic development, folks.

Then and now, it’s exploitation.