Panel nixes controversial child labor bill that would create $5.25 ‘training wage’

Posted May 07, 2011, at 11:33 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s Labor Committee on Friday shot down a child labor bill that would have allowed employers to pay workers under age 20 a “training wage.”

The panel’s vote against LD 1346 was unanimous and came without discussion.

The controversial proposal had drawn the ire of labor advocates, who said the bill devalued young workers and took money out of the hands of laborers and gave it to businesses.

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

Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, sponsored the bill, which includes eliminating the maximum hours a minor over 16 can work during school days.

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

Burns expounded on those same arguments in a recent letter to the Portland Press Herald.

Burns was not present for the Labor Committee’s vote.

Democrats and labor advocates had blasted the proposal. The bill also 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Burns’ bill would effectively revive the teenage wage that was repealed by the Legislature more than 20 years ago.

In 2007, a pair of Republican lawmakers sponsored a bill similar to the one Burns is proposing. That bill was voted down unanimously by the Labor Committee amid opposition from the Labor Department.

While the committee’s vote likely spells the end for Burns’ bill, another child labor proposal is still alive.

That proposal, sponsored by Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, loosens work restrictions for 16- and 17-year-olds during the school year.

Plowman’s bill originally proposed allowing high-school-age kids to work up to 32 hours a week during the school year.

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

The Labor Committee voted March 25 along partisan lines to support the amended version. However, LD 516 still hasn’t been reported out of committee.

Gov. Paul LePage has endorsed Plowman’s proposal.

Democrats and labor advocates believe Plowman’s bill goes too far toward undoing the state’s update to the child labor laws passed in 1991.

Those laws were crafted amid complaints from teachers that students were falling asleep in class after working long hours.

Opponents also worry that rolling back the regulations will allow employers to pressure minors into working longer hours. They also fear the proposal will shift emphasis from education and school-sponsored extracurricular activities.

Industry groups, including the Maine Restaurant Association, have argued that Maine’s law was too strict compared to child labor laws in other New England states.

For example, Vermont law aligns with federal law for 16- and 17-year-olds and imposes no work limits during the school year.

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