by Ty Brennan
MERIDIAN — A lunchroom controversy has ended up on the governor’s desk and spurred a change in Idaho’s child labor laws.
For more than two decades, the Meridian School District has allowed students to work in the lunchroom. In return, middle and high school students are paid, as well as given a free lunch. But that program came to a halt earlier this year after a parent complained the district was in violation of Idaho’s child labor laws, which states a child under the age of 14 cannot work during the hours that public school is in session.
But parents rallied in support of the program taking the matter all the way to the Idaho Statehouse.
“I was surprised,” said Michelle Burk, a parent of three students in enrolled in the Meridian School District.
Burk says she was in disbelief when she heard last fall the district’s long running program allowing students to work in the lunchroom was suspended.
“It’s a great program for our kids; I have a sixth grader who is currently working,” said Burk. “He was getting free lunches everyday and he had a paycheck of 85 cents for the 10 minutes that he worked.”
“This fall a parent bought to our attention that we were violating a law, a child labor law that kids cannot work during when public school is in session” said Meridian School District spokesman Eric Exline.
Upset, students and parents began contacting the district begging for the program to be reinstated, saying it does more than offer a paycheck or a free meal.
“It teaches job skills, especially at the middle school,” said Exline. “They get a paycheck, you have to be on time, you have to do what you’re asked, what your supervisor is telling you.”
Parents and the district worked together to draft a bill that amends the way child labor laws are governed in Idaho.
That bill was signed into law Tuesday and now states students may be employed by public schools or districts for a maximum of 10 hours a week, provided the employment is voluntary and with the consent of the student’s legal guardian.
“I’m thrilled, I think a lot of kids enjoy the program, and it’s a good thing,” said Burk. “There is not a bad thing about the program. It teaches so many great values about work experience for those kids. I’m thrilled that it’s passed.”
Exline says the lunch program actually saves the district money. Without the students help they would have to hire more employees.
Right now, the elementary and middle schools are relying on student volunteers until the program can be reinstated. The program is expected to start up again next school year.