AUGUSTA, Maine — Teenagers in Maine would be allowed to work longer and later during the school week under a bill that received initial approval in the House on a largely party-line vote Wednesday evening after a heated debate.
The bill, which already has passed the Senate, would allow minors to work an additional four hours during weeks when school is in session — increasing the limit from 20 to 24 hours — and would permit them to work 15 minutes later, until 10:15 p.m., on school days.
The 78-69 vote fell largely along partisan lines, with one Democrat and one Republican breaking ranks to vote with the other party.
Bill supporters argued that the current law — the most restrictive in New England — placed unnecessary financial burdens on teens and their families and was unrealistic given the balancing act that many young people already manage.
“It is time we left these decisions up to the moms and dads and these kids who are trying to improve their situation,” said Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting.
But Democrats countered that allowing teens to work up to six hours a day during the school week — up from the current limit of four hours — would barely leave time for them to complete homework and get adequate sleep.
“I believe an 11-hour day — four hours of work in addition to seven hours of school, as currently allowed by law — is enough for a student whose primary focus should be on preparing for the next day’s school work,” said Rep. Paul Gilbert, D-Jay.
As originally introduced, the measure by Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, would have lifted all restrictions on the number of hours a 17-year-old could work and would have repealed limitations on hours for 16-year-olds when school was not in session.
Plowman later rewrote the bill to limit students to 32 hours during school weeks and as late as 11 p.m. Lawmakers reduced those figures to 24 hours and 10:15 p.m.
The bill received the support of the LePage administration as well as organizations such as the Maine Restaurant Association and the Maine Innkeepers Association. But other advocacy organizations as well as unions opposed the measure.
On Wednesday, several teachers who serve in the House urged their colleagues to reject the changes. Rep. Alan Casavant, a Biddeford Democrat who teaches social sciences in high school, said he sees many young people who already rank school third behind sports and work.
“In my view, as an active teacher, to go backward and allow more work is just going to create an even bigger problem,” Casavant said.
Other opponents suggested that allowing students to work even later would do nothing to lower Maine’s dropout rate, increase the percentage of Mainers who attend and graduate from college or provide jobs to the tens of thousands of adults who are unemployed.
“Given the current high unemployment rate in Maine, we should be spending our time and energy here creating jobs for people’s parents not increasing the amount of hours 16- and 17-year-olds can work,” said Rep. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast.
Republican supporters of the measure, however, described Maine’s labor laws on young adults as another example of government intervention in residents’ personal lives.
“Some of us on the committee believe that working teens and their parents are in the best position to decide how often they should work, just as they do for sports, TV viewing, etc. … ,” said Rep. Kerri Prescott, R-Topsham.
Worse still, supporters said, Maine’s restrictions come at a time when many young people must work to help support their families and college students are taking on more and more debt to pay for school.
“This gives people that want the opportunity to earn a few extra dollars for their future the chance to do so,” said Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington. “This bill doesn’t require anyone to work if they don’t want to.”
The bill faces an additional vote in the House before being sent back to the Senate for final enactment.