There seems to be a trend emerging here. Augusta these days has more to do with regression than progression. First our Governor proposed peeling back all environmental protections to the federal standard, and now there is a bill to eliminate some child labor protections in Maine – taking us back decades!
Maine's child labor laws were first enacted in 1847, and strengthened repeatedly over the years. The reason? Educators complained that students forced to work long hours outside of school were falling asleep in class. The current law limiting working hours for 16 and 17 year-olds was forged through bipartisan agreement about the need to balance employer interests with the health and welfare of Maine children.
The bill on the table seeks to eliminate significant protections regarding working hours for 16 and 17-year-olds. It would make it legal for teens to work up to six hours a day, and as late as 11pm, totaling 32 hours in a week! Under current Maine law, a teen can work up to 20 hours a week, with a maximum of four hours a day, and as late at 10pm.
Our current child labor laws match our values: working teens should be protected from being pushed to work unreasonable hours, especially during the school year. After all, a teen's number one priority should be success in school.
Maine Women's Lobby Public Policy Director, Laura Harper, illustrated the critical importance of these protections in her testimony before the Labor, Commerce, and Economic Development Committee last week. Laura started working as a teenager a year after the Maine law changed to further protect working teens. In her testimony she commented, "I'm thankful for these protections. My employer scheduled me for the maximum number of hours consistently and there was always pressure to stay late and as many total hours as legally possible. Without the Maine law protecting teens in the workplace, I'm sure that I would have been working more than 20 hours a week during the school year."
Many working teens benefit from these workplace protections. Just the other day, I spoke with a former manager at a big-box store, who informed me that she took the child labor laws very seriously and made sure that her younger co-workers worked only the legal number of hours. She did this not just because it was the law, but because it was the right thing to do. Child labor standards hold employers accountable for the health and welfare of their young employees. When I look back to my first job, it becomes clear how important these protections are. Not all teens know about their rights in the workplace or feel empowered to advocate for themselves, making it all the more important for clear laws to protect them.
We all benefit when we equip our students with the skills they need to succeed in the future. Business leaders agree that Maine's most important economic development assets are our quality of life and our loyal and skilled workforce. To maintain this, we must ensure that our students can succeed in school, and not go back to the days when students were falling asleep at their desk because they were working too hard. To make it through this recession, we need to do everything we can to invest in our workforce. Gutting child labor laws does nothing to increase jobs. In fact it will do just the opposite: obstruct students' success in school, and put their occupational aspirations at risk.