Changes to Maine’s Child Labor Laws – Will 100 Years of Progress Disappear?

[The following op-ed appeared in the Bangor Daily News on April 2, 2011]

By Barbara Burt, the Frances Perkins Center & Sally Greenberg, the National Consumers League & Co-chair, Child Labor Coalition

The Maine legislature is considering weakening the state’s child labor laws. That worries us and it would have worried Frances Perkins, who became a leader in the fight to ban exploitative child labor in the U.S. almost a century ago.

Coming after Governor LePage’s ill-conceived removal of the Department of Labor’s mural—which portrayed Frances Perkins and honored the struggles and accomplishments of Maine workers through history, including child workers—and the erasure of the name “Perkins” from a conference room, it seems that there’s an all-out attack on Maine workers underway.

Perkins was the first woman to serve in a presidential Cabinet and was one of the primary architects of the New Deal, which brought us many of the workplace protections and rights we all enjoy.

On March 25, 1911—100 years ago—Perkins, who at that time led the Consumers League in New York, witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, in which 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women and girls—some as young as 14 and 15—perished. The owners of the sweatshop factory had locked a door that might have helped their escape.

Galvanized by the sight and sound of young workers leaping to their deaths, Perkins  dedicated the rest of her life to worker protections, first in New York’s Labor Commission and then as FDR’s secretary of labor, a post she held for twelve years. Her efforts against the exploitation of children culminated in the passage of 1938’s Fair Labor Standards Act, which outlawed most forms of child labor in the U.S.

Now, shockingly, Maine Republican legislators are ignoring that history by taking up bills to roll back its child labor laws. L.D. 516, introduced by Sen. Debra Plowman (R-Hampden) is already headed for a vote in the Senate. It would increase the hours that teenagers are allowed to work from 20 to 24. Rep. Plowman says that her bill will help students by allowing them to earn more money for college. We believe it will actually lead to a higher high school dropout rate.

Twenty-four hours per week may sound insignificant—it’s better than the 32 hours a week that she had originally wanted—but it’s too many hours: four hours a day, six days a week. The current 20-hour limit was not established arbitrarily; for years, 20 hours has been recognized by child advocates as the maximum that teens can work and attend school.

Researchers from the University of Washington, the University of Virginia, and Temple University issued a recent report finding that working more than 20 hours a week during the school year leads to academic and behavior problems. Working more than 20 hours is not healthy for high school students.

The Plowman bill would also allow teens to work till 11 p.m. instead of 10 on a school night, making it a lot harder for kids to go to school, work, participate in after school activities, do homework, and get a good night’s sleep. If a teen works till 11, it seems likely they will only get four to six hours of sleep before they have to be in school. According to the National Sleep Foundation, more than one quarter of high school students fall asleep in class now.

Each year about 230,000 teens suffer work-related injuries. By increasing worker fatigue, we increase the likelihood of injury. Driving to and from the job is one of the most common ways teen workers are injured or killed. Do we really want teenagers on the road after 11:00 when their chances of falling asleep or encountering a drunk driver are increased?

Teens who work at night in retail establishments are also at an elevated risk of assault. Last year, an Illinois teenager working late in a sandwich shop was abducted, beaten, and sexually assaulted. Working till 11:00 increases the chances that teens will be working alone or closing up.

The Plowman bill is bad enough, but a second bill, L.D. 1346 introduced this week by David Burns (R-Whiting), takes away the limit on the number of hours a student can work on a school night (currently four hours) and creates a sub-minimum wage class—at $5.25 an hour—for workers under 20 as well as “trainees” for the first 180 days of work. There’s no way that Burns’s bill can be construed as “helping students earn money for college.”

Frances Perkins fought for child labor protections her whole life. She loved Maine and her family’s homestead in Newcastle, which today houses the Frances Perkins Center, the nonpartisan nonprofit organization that carries on her commitment to economic security and social justice. Now, her beloved state of Maine may be turning back the clock. We hope for the sake of our kids—our future—that the legislature rejects both bills.