Maine lawmakers loosen teen work rules–roll back Child Labor Protections

By Mal Leary, Capitol News Service

Posted May 26, 2011, at 6:13 p.m.
Last modified May 27, 2011, at 9:46 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine – Gov. Paul LePage is expected to sign into law legislation allowing 16- and 17-year-olds in Maine to work longer hours during the school year, his office confirmed Thursday. But the legislation provoked lengthy debate before being enacted earlier this week, with some lawmakers arguing students need to be students first.

“In this case Maine has had the most restrictive laws related to 16- and 17-year-olds in the nation,” Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, the co-chair of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, said during debate on the bill.  ”We have been the outliers, far more restrictive than our New England counterparts and far more restrictive than most other states.”

He said the legislation brings Maine more into line with other states, although the bill was considerably watered down from its original version, sponsored by Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, which would have lifted all restrictions on the number of hours 16-year-olds could work while school is not in session. It also would have repealed all limitations on the hours a 17-year-old may work.

As amended by lawmakers, the limit for both age groups is 24 hours in a week, with a six-hour-per-day limit, up from the current four-hour limit per day. It also bans work after 10:15 p.m. on a day preceding a school day.

The bill led to lengthy debates in both the House and the Senate. Sen. Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham, is worried that allowing high school students to work later at night and for longer hours will have a serious impact on their ability to handle school assignments and prepare for higher education, whether a college degree or a vocational occupation.

“We’re going to increase it now so they are going to spend as much time at work as they did at school during the day,” he said. “That’s 12 hours essentially, of work, of focused attention, during the day leaving little time for any homework, for sleep, for dinner with the family, you name it. So there’s a significant problem, I think, just in the quantity of hours we are asking them to work in a day.”

There were also allegations that the changes were aimed at helping some Maine businesses to get cheap labor.

“I think this bill should be more rightly titled an act to exploit our children for the financial benefit of the restaurant and the hospitality industry,“ said Rep. Timothy Driscoll, D-Westbrook.

But others in both the House and Senate debate on the bill said the state is trying to substitute for parents in making decisions about the hours a teen may work during the school year.

“You can call it a nanny state or you can call it too restrictive or whatever you want,“said Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting. “It’s time we left these decisions up to moms and dads and these young people who are trying to better their situation.”

Lawmakers also pointed to the increasing cost of post-secondary education and the increasing debt a student incurs while in college acquiring a degree and argued many need to work to help pay for their education.

“We are going to leave them in debt and we are going to leave them without the means to even alleviate that debt,” said Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, “This is immoral, this is unconscionable.”

Opponents also argued that another result of allowing teens to work longer hours would mean less time for them to do school work. But Sen. Earle McCormick, R-West Gardiner, said when he was a teacher, students often talked about staying up late to watch TV, not to do homework

“These are 13-year-olds staying up past midnight watching Monday Night Football,” McCormick said. “So the assumption that somehow they’ll just be home studying if we take things away from them I think is false.”

Rector said some students choose to play sports while others may choose to do theatre, and others, he said choose to work for many different reasons that is best left for them to decide.

“I had a call from a young person who was asking for extended hours in relation to this bill,” he said. “They had heard about this because they were helping their single mom pay the bills at home for them and their siblings.”

The legislation takes effect 90 days after the Legislature adjourns, or just in time for the start of the new school year in September.