WASHINGTON — Newt Gingrich isn’t the only Republican who wants to relax U.S. laws that have restricted work by children for more than seven decades.
Republican governors and state lawmakers, who succeeded this year in curbing union powers, are pushing to revise their child-labor laws to help companies such as groceries get workers. Wisconsin will let employers treat teenagers as adults in pay and hours, and Maine lawmakers want to let companies keep teens working longer hours.
The moves pose a challenge to child-labor laws, established at the federal level in 1938 to protect youths from working long hours on dangerous machinery instead of going to school. Republicans and businesses that share Gingrich’s view see easing the restrictions as part of their effort to cut back government regulation while giving teenagers a chance to learn valuable work habits.
“How come it’s OK, even exemplary, for teenagers to spend 40 hours a week in sports, glee club, chorus, debate society, or any other select activity sanctioned by the social elite, but if you are a teenager who wants to work or needs to work, there are limits?” Dick Grotton, president of the Maine Restaurant Association, based in Augusta, said in an interview. “Kids working is not a bad thing.”
The federal Fair Labor Standards Act sets a minimum age of 14 for most work and bars children under 18 from hazardous jobs. The law remained intact after the Supreme Court knocked down a challenge in 1941, and its champions say Gingrich is leading an effort to undermine it. Some states such as Maine have laws that exceed federal requirements, and Republican legislators are targeting the state regulations.
“This is part of a coordinated effort by conservatives across the country to use the economic crisis to shred critical worker protections,” Anne Thompson, a policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, a Washington-based group that advocates for worker rights, said in an interview.
Gingrich, leading in polls among candidates for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, used a speech at Harvard last month to depict the restrictions as undermining opportunities for the poor.
“It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children in, first of all, child laws, which are truly stupid,” the former House speaker said.
He reaffirmed the position during a Dec. 10 debate among the Republican candidates in Iowa, suggesting children replace union janitors in New York’s public schools.
“You give lots of poor kids a work experience in the cafeteria, in the school library, in the front office,” Gingrich said. “I’ll stand by the idea young people ought to learn how to work. Middle-class kids do it routinely. We should give poor kids the same chance to pursue happiness.”
Gingrich’s comments haven’t been embraced universally among his fellow Republicans or business groups.
“To have kids work in the library and to help out in school and to clean the blackboards does not require changing our child-labor laws,” Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is also seeking the Republican nomination, said during the Iowa debate.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business lobbying group, declined to comment on the issue. “We don’t get involved in presidential politics, and therefore we don’t weigh in on candidates’ proposals,” Blair Latoff, a Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman, said.
Easing child-labor laws would most benefit companies that employ low-wage workers, including retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores and operators of fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s, according to Thompson of the National Employment Law Project.
Greg Rossiter, a spokesman for Wal-Mart, declined to comment. Danya Proud, a spokeswoman for McDonald’s, didn’t respond to phone and email requests for comment.
Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House Labor and Workforce Committee, said in an interview that attacks on child-labor laws are about “demonizing the poor.”
“A kid with a parent working two low-wage jobs to pay the rent knows what a work ethic is,” he said. “She doesn’t need any more hard knocks from the likes of Newt Gingrich. What she needs is access to great education and her parents need a vibrant job market. You get neither when you repeal child-labor laws and replace Mom and Dad with underage children.”
While Gingrich’s comments may appeal to conservatives in Republican primaries, they would hurt him in a contest against President Barack Obama, said Tobe Berkovitz, a political communications professor at Boston University.
“It adds to his baggage if he needed to slink to the middle in a general election,” he said in an interview. “That’s one of the charms and one of the foibles of Newt Gingrich. What was meant to be a comment on developing a work ethic now looks like he is stepping over the line into trashing protections for young people.”