At the tender age of 11, Heath Carrignan is no stranger to work. But that doesn’t mean he’s ready to get a job, no matter what Gov. Paul LePage says.
LePage said at an agricultural trade show Tuesday that laws that restrict children’s ability to work before they turn 16 are “causing damage to our economy. I started working far earlier than that, and it didn’t hurt me at all.”
Heath, who said he has helped clean up at his Boy Scout camp, is the same age that LePage said he was when he first went to work. The 11-year-old already has daily responsibilities: He attends King Middle School in Portland.
“We have to learn how to read and write and learn how to do algebra before we’re sent to work at a convenience store,” Heath said.
LePage plans to reintroduce legislation this session to make it easier for 12- to 15-year-olds to work. It would remove a requirement for students younger than 16 to get approval from school officials to get work permits for the summer, said LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett. Children would need only their parents’ permission to take summer jobs.
The application process would be streamlined, and some quirks in the law would be eliminated, including a prohibition on 14- and 15-year-olds working in movie theaters or bowling alleys.
Bennett said the governor won’t propose any changes in laws that limit the hours that children can work: three hours on school days and 18 hours in a school week, and eight hours a day and 40 hours in a week when there is no school.
“We’re not demanding that our kids work in sweatshops,” Bennett said. “We’re simply asking to speed up the work permit process.”
Some parents and children aren’t so sure that adolescents need to jump into jobs.
“There’s a lot of time in our lives that we work, and at 12, you should be involved in extracurricular activities and sports,” said Joanne Gates of Portland, whose 14-year-old daughter baby-sits occasionally.
Ed Cunningham, the father of another King Middle School student, said his son, 11, and daughter, 14, help out with his lawn care and snow-clearing business, but only when they want to do it. Once they’ve made enough spending money, they usually stop, he said, beginning again when they need more.
Cunningham said he pays his kids well, usually a quarter of whatever he’s making on a job. He said jokingly that he may be doing them “a disservice because they don’t understand how hard it is to make money.”
It’s all legal. Children who work for their parents are exempt from most state work restrictions.
Some kids, however, seemed cool Wednesday to the suggestion that they get a job.
Madeline Pettegil, 13, said kids shouldn’t have to work before they’re in high school.
“I’d like to put if off for another year,” the eighth-grader said. “I’d rather spend time with my friends.”
“School is really important right now,” said Molly Bowden, 13.
Children’s advocates agree.
“Even for kids who are in high school, studies show that when kids work more than 20 hours a week, that can be detrimental to finishing high school,” said Claire Berkowitz, executive director of the Maine Children’s Alliance.
Berkowitz said she sympathizes with LePage, who had an abusive father and left home and had to start working when he was 11, but she’s baffled that the governor keeps pushing to make it easier for children to work.
“That’s his journey, but it doesn’t have to be every child’s journey,” she said.
If families need to have children work to make ends meet, that suggests a problem that won’t be solved by putting pre-teens to work, said Berkowitz. “A 12-year-old should be about going to school and not feeling the economic strain of a family put on their back.”
But others say working from a young age can teach lessons that are as important as those taught in a classroom.
Jim Gerritsen, who runs Wood Prairie Farm in Bridgewater, between Houlton and Presque Isle, said all four of his children work on the farm. That includes his 10-year-old daughter and his 23-year-old son, who is a few months away from graduating from Eastern Maine Community College.
Although some of the work is physical – his children help split and stack the wood that heats the farmhouse – much of it is lighter duty. Gerritsen said his 10-year-old spent about an hour Tuesday night putting stamps and mailing labels on the farm’s seed potato catalogs.
“Everybody works, and we think there’s a lot of education that goes on at the farm,” Gerritsen said. “It teaches them self-respect.”
He pays the 10-year-old minimum wage – $7.50 an hour – and his older children more. Half must go into a college savings account, he said, and the rest can be spending money. And if there’s a conflict between farm chores and homework, education comes first.
All four children “are toward the tops of their class,” he said. “The two best things a kid can learn growing up is the ability to think critically and the ability to work hard. They get that.”
Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: