Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Child labor laws were first put in place, in part, to protect children from work dangerous to their health and well-being.
But a Route 1 campground or lakeside ice cream stand cannot compare to a textile mill, and a proposal to loosen child labor laws now before Maine lawmakers cannot be equated with turning back the clock to the conditions of a century ago.
The bill, L.D. 2556, would allow children age 14-16, with parental permission, to obtain work permits directly from the Department of Labor during the summer. Now, young workers need the permission of their local school superintendent, a process that can cost precious time in the short season from the last day of school through Labor Day. It also would allow these young workers to take jobs in bowling alleys and theaters, occupations now allowed by federal law and the overwhelming majority of states but prohibited in Maine.
These slight changes to state law, similar to a proposal that was rejected by the Legislature earlier this year, would help employers fill positions in the busy tourist season. It also would increase opportunities for teenagers to earn money and learn how to be successful in the workplace.
Gov. Paul LePage has frequently said Maine should loosen its child labor laws. Citing his own experience working from an early age, LePage has said children as young as 12 should be able to work so that they can take home a paycheck, along with lessons on the value of hard work and self-reliance.
To that end, the governor has tried, unsuccessfully, to pass a bill that would have created a $5.25-per-hour “training wage” for workers younger than 20. In 2011, he signed into law a bill that increased the number of hours 16- and 17-year-olds can work per day and per week while school is in session.
A training wage — which would exploit the workers it purports to help while cutting labor costs for employers who in many cases already pay wages that are too low — is a bad idea.
But the modest increase in the allowable work week for teens likely helps far more than it hurts, as long as the restrictions are not loosened further. And the latest proposal merely speeds up the process to get teens eager for a job working for employers willing to hire them.
The law now requires children age 14-16 to first secure a job and then seek a signature from their superintendent, who verifies that the student is enrolled in school and passing a majority of his or her classes. The job information and superintendent’s signature are forwarded to the Department of Labor, which issues the work permit.
The employer must keep the position open during the process. If offering a job to a student means a week or two delay before work can start, the employer is liable to look elsewhere.
The permitting process works well during the school year. But during the summer, when the superintendent’s criteria really only applies to summer school students, the process can slow down. State officials say they receive several complaints every week during the summer from employers waiting for permits to be approved, with the holdup occurring at the superintendent’s office.
Unlike the bill rejected earlier this year, this proposal keeps superintendents in the loop on work permits for students participating in summer school, but removes them during the summer for all other students. That is enough to win the support of the Maine School Management Association, which opposed the earlier bill because members wanted to make sure that students are meeting their school responsibilities before they are allowed to work.
That should be enough for lawmakers as well. Policy should err on the side of protecting young workers, but it does no good to hold back teens from earning pay and experience while school is out of session.