Teen ‘training wage’ bill draws opposition

Posted April 15, 2011, at 7:25 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — There was plenty of opposition to a bill that would establish a low “training wage” for teens starting a new job, but only the proposal’s sponsor spoke in favor of it at a public hearing Friday.

Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, said he has been surprised by the amount of criticism he has received over the bill.

“I do not hate children, I have five children, I have seven grandchildren, and I don’t think any of them are too much abused,” said Burns.

On the other side, more than 20 people —  including labor advocates, educators and several high school children — testified against the bill. Critics contended that lowering the minimum wage, even for a training period, would devalue the work done by teens. And increasing hours would take the priority off schoolwork and put it on enterprise.

Burns said the premise of his bill was to give more opportunities to minors to gain work experience, training and a work ethic, while allowing willing employers to have more entry-level jobs.

The bill also would release restrictions that require permission from school officials for some teens to work. He said he’s concerned about minors being stressed from too much work, and from too much  involvement in sports and extracurricular activities.

“I believe these decisions are best made between the minors and the parents, not the state and the schools,” said Burns.

According to a summary of the bill, it would establish a training wage for new workers 20 years old or younger of $5.62 per hour for their first 90 days of employment. Maine minimum wage is $7.50 an hour. The bill also eliminates the maximum number of hours a minor 16 or older can work during school days, and allows one under 16 to work up to four hours on a school day.

Under current law, when school isn’t in session, 16- and 17-year-olds can work 50 hours a week. But during the school year their hours are restricted. An employer can allow them to work only four hours in the day, and until only 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.

Kate Cart, 17, of Hallowell said she works at a T.J. Maxx clothing store and also maintains high honors. But one time, she said, a new manager who didn’t know her age scheduled her for a long shift on a school night. Because of the existing laws, she was able to work with the manager to address the problem.

If she had to work those shifts, she would be sacrificing high honors or sleep, said the Hall-Dale High School senior.

“When a teen like me is scheduled for more hours than current laws allow, other areas of my life will be negatively impacted,” she said.

Stephen Carr, 14, of York told the committee he was a volunteer Fire Explorer in his community as well as a member of the York Village Business Association and one of the head directors of the York Village Market Fest. He took exception to generalizations that Burns had made regarding young people and diminishing work ethics.

And he said that lowering the wage for a training period would result in wages that barely cover the price of gas.

Brian Hubbell, chairman of the Mount Desert Island Regional School System, noted that Gov. Paul LePage has said he wants the Maine education to be the best in the country.

“But to accomplish this, our students must be dedicated to their schooling,” he said. “School must be their full-time job.”

Burns’ bill is one of two that seek to make changes to Maine’s child labor laws. The other bill, sponsored by Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, had broad support from industry during a public hearing a month ago, with groups such as the Maine Innkeepers Association, the Maine Restaurant Association, the Maine State Chamber and others testifying in favor. The bill also was supported by LePage’s administration, through the Department of Labor.

That bill passed the committee on party lines, 7-6. But the committee has not yet reported out Plowman’s bill to the full Legislature.

A representative from the Department of Labor testified neither for nor against Burns’ bill on Friday. The representative said, however, that the administration was in favor of a training wage.

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