A bill that would allow teens to work more hours during the school year drew some criticism Wednesday from groups that saw the move as a rollback of Maine’s child labor laws.
The bill, filed by Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, was supported by industry groups including the Maine Restaurant Association and the Maine Innkeepers Association during a public hearing Wednesday in front of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.
“Here’s the bottom line: Maine is considerably more restrictive than anybody else in New England. Not just a little bit, a lot,” said Dick Grotton of the restaurant group. “We’re just trying not to be the bottom rung of the ladder. The next up is Connecticut — they restrict hours of work per day to six rather than four, [let students] work until 11 p.m. rather than 10, 32 hours a week, not 20.”
Grotton said officials with Gov. Paul LePage’s administration have spoken with various industries, asking for examples of state laws they felt were stifling business. This was one of the issues, he said.
During the summer, when school isn’t in session, 16- and 17-year-olds can work 50 hours a week, which is the most liberal policy in New England. But during the school year their hours are restricted. An employer can allow them to work only four hours in the day, and only until 10 p.m. on a day that is followed by a school day. The total hours they can work for an employer is 20 during the week.
During weeks in which school is not in session for five days, some additional hours are allowed. And students, if they choose, can work beyond the limits by working for multiple employers.
Plowman’s bill would allow employers to have teens work six hours a day, as late as 11 p.m., for a total of 32 hours a week. Plowman’s bill was amended ahead of the hearing from an entire scrapping of existing laws to the increase in weekly hours, daily hours and nightly quitting time.
Plowman could not be reached for comment.
“There’s no attempt here to go back to any type of draconian situations; it’s totally up to them to take the jobs that fit their schedule,” said Greg Dugal, executive director of the innkeepers group. “I think it’s important we look at things and try to make them work for everybody.”
Groups opposing the law included the Maine AFL-CIO and the Maine Women’s Lobby.
“Our big concern is that we understand that the child labor laws and protections are there for a very good reason, to ensure that our young people are succeeding in school,” said Laura Harper, director of public policy for the Maine Women’s Lobby. “We feel that the existing protections help students strike a healthy balance and are a healthy entry point into the work force.”
Both Grotton and Dugal said the single biggest problem was the cap of four hours a day.
Generally, the dinner hours run from about 5 to 10 p.m., said Dugal.
“Four hours is so restrictive that they can’t work from the dinner hour through the evening,” said Grotton. “You can’t have someone come in at 5 and leave at 10.”
“We’re not hiring a lot of 16- and 17-year-olds for this reason,” said Dugal. “We would like to, and they would like to work the shifts.”
And, he added, things generally wind down by about 11 p.m. — which is the new proposed end time for teens on school nights.
Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the AFL-CIO, said he believed the current law struck the appropriate balance between allowing teens to work and earn money, gain experience from employment and do well in school. He worried that increasing hours would undermine workplace safety for teens and would harm their education as well.
“We all recognize in this economy that a good education is of utmost importance if people want to achieve economic security,” said Schlobohm.
According to Grotton, Vermont and New Hampshire have no daily cap on hours worked by teens, nor does federal law. Massachusetts and Rhode Island allow up to nine hours a day. Likewise, federal law, New Hampshire and Vermont don’t have a limit on how late teens can work; Massachusetts is set at 10 and Rhode Island at 11:30. As for hours per week, federal law and Vermont have no limit, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are at 48 and New Hampshire is at 30.
Harper and Schlobohm said they were concerned that teens would be pressured to work more hours than they wanted by employers. If they were unwilling to work the extra hours, they likely would find themselves unemployed, they said.
Both groups opposing and supporting the law change were surprised that the Maine Department of Labor testified in favor of the bill. In the past, under other administrations, the department had been an advocate of the current system, even noting in brochures that teens who work more than 20 hours a week may not do as well in school as their counterparts who work less, Harper said.
Dugal said he was “shocked,” as the department always had opposed any proposed changes.
“I didn’t expect it,” said Dugal.
Harper said she was “deeply disturbed” by the department’s testimony.
“We have a Department of Labor that has historically protected this law,” said Harper. “It sends a very troubling signal to all of us who advocate for kids, for families, for a fair economy, when we see the department reverse its position so dramatically.”