Lawmaker’s bill would create $5.25 “training wage” for teens

Posted March 30, 2011, at 9 p.m.
Last modified March 31, 2011, at 8:53 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The sponsor of a new child labor bill says employers should have the flexibility to pay workers under age 20 a “training wage.”

Opponents countered that the proposal devalues young workers and takes money out of the hands of laborers and gives it to business.

LD 1346 suggests several significant changes to Maine’s child labor law, most notably a 180-day period during which workers under age 20 would earn $5.25 an hour.

The state’s current minimum wage is $7.50 an hour.

Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, is sponsoring the bill, which also would eliminate the maximum number of hours a minor over 16 can work during school days.

Burns said the bill empowers both employers and employees and that employers would have more opportunities to hire minors.

“An employer’s got to have employees, so they can decide what they want to pay,” Burns said. “The student wants to have a job, and they can decide what they’re willing to work for.”

But Democrats and labor advocates have blasted the proposal. The bill also has caught the attention of the Maine Democratic Party, which was quick to link the bill to Gov. Paul LePage’s decision to remove a mural depicting child millworkers and other moments in Maine history from the Department of Labor.

“It’s just too perfect after the flap with the mural,” party chairman Ben Grant said. “First, the governor tries to whitewash history and now this bill is trying to erase the progress of child labor laws itself.”

Burns’ bill effectively would revive the teenage wage that was repealed by the Legislature more than 20 years ago.

It’s unclear how the administration will view Burns’ bill. Dan Demeritt, a spokesman for LePage, said the administration had yet to review the proposal.

However, the governor is backing a bill sponsored by Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, that loosens work restrictions for 16- and 17-year-olds during the school year. That bill is headed for a vote in the Senate.

It originally proposed allowing the youths to work up to 32 hours a week during the school year, a provision the governor supported.

Plowman’s bill eventually was amended after significant push-back from labor groups. The amended version increases the current workweek to 24 hours, an additional four hours from current law. It also allows students to work until 11 p.m.

Similar resistance to Burns’ bill already has begun.

Laura Harper of the Maine Women’s Lobby said the proposal undermines efforts to “teach teens the value of hard work.”

“This instead sends them the message that they aren’t valued,” Harper said. “That doesn’t fit with Maine values. At a time when business leaders recognize that student achievement is critical to Maine’s economic growth, this bill will shortchange students and impair Maine’s economic success.”

Burns disagreed.

“I’m sure some will support this and some won’t,” he said. “Some will see this as a step back toward child labor. It’s not.”

Burns said he had heard from a lot of parents who are supportive of his bill. He hoped to receive the backing of trade groups such as the Maine Restaurant Association, which has supported Plowman’s bill.

Democrats and labor advocates disagree. They say Plowman and Burns are putting too much emphasis on work and not enough on education.

Harper cited a 2000 U.S. Department of Labor study that suggested “working a limited number of hours in the junior and senior years of high school has a positive effect on educational attainment.”

Democrats on the Legislature’s Labor Committee were highly skeptical of Burns’ bill.

Rep. Timothy Driscoll, D-Westbrook, said the two child labor bills under consideration would result in “kids working more hours during the school week and making less money.”

A public hearing has not been scheduled for Burns’ bill.

See more of the Sun Journal at sunjournal.com.

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