April 25, 2011

Maine Voices: Proposed child labor law rollback
leaves a Republican confused

Removing limits on the hours young people can work won't create jobs but will cut opportunity.

BELFAST - I am a very confused Republican. While Gov. Paul LePage and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have said that Maine's priority must be creating jobs, the Legislature is considering a bill to allow employers the ability to pay our youth, (somehow misconstrued to include those up to the age of 20) a reduced rate of pay for working more hours during the school year.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Bulmer
is a resident of Belfast.

L.D. 1346 would enable employers to schedule teenagers unlimited hours during the school year for less than the minimum wage. How is this supposed to make our state a better place to live?

Far from creating jobs, this bill would undermine student achievement and stymie the state's economic progress. I am confused as to what we are communicating to our youth and to our parents.

The more teenagers work during their school week, the lower their high school achievement -- and the less likely they are to pursue a college degree. Scores from the 2009 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Programme for International Student Assessment show the United States performing about average in reading and science, and below average in math.

Out of 34 countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math. Business leaders in Maine and throughout the country commonly reference higher education and training as critical for meeting their work force needs.

In fact, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and Maine Development Foundation's 2010 report "Making Maine Work: Critical Investments in the Maine Economy" specifically highlights the need to equip Maine's younger people with a higher level of education in order to bolster Maine's economic development.

So why are we communicating that a young person's education is less important than scooping ice cream until 11 p.m.? Is this the way that we are going to make an impact on the future of our state? Far from solving the state's unemployment problem, this bill would contribute to it.

Unemployment is 8.8 percent in the United States and is only slightly lower in our state. This bill will allow employers to hire fewer people currently in the unemployment line, while maximizing young people's working hours and pocketing more profit.

I am fiscally conservative, and am the first person to say that "profit" is not a bad word. But I would hide my head in shame if I thought that I would make more money as a means of exploiting our youth.

Some will likely argue that this piece of legislation offers students the option of taking on more work -- but does not require them to do so. This is correct in theory, but employers will undoubtedly seek out more flexible students, therefore prohibiting employment opportunities for those who are serious about their studies and extracurricular activities.

It is an argument that doesn't pass the common sense test. That's why so many students who are seeking to balance their work with school have voiced their opposition to the bill. Maine has a long-standing and bipartisan commitment to protecting young workers.

Since 1847, the Maine Legislature has acted repeatedly to balance the interests of employers with the health and welfare of Maine's young people. It's Maine educators who have been among the loudest voices for child labor protection throughout the years, because they saw the results of inaction -- students falling asleep in class.

Now, the Legislature is being asked to take a huge step backward. Why, when Maine's economic recovery is on the ropes, would we allow lawmakers to take Maine in this direction?

LePage made a campaign promise of making higher education more accessible. He and business leaders recognize that an educated work force is an investment that will pay off for the future of Maine.

What this legislation conveys is that the short-term gain associated with paying less for more is better than investing in our future. In the finance world, this could be compared to the securitization of mortgage products for a short-term gain.

We all know how that ended. It's time to start solving our economic development issues rather than promoting self-serving legislation that will only harm our children and our future.

- Special to The Press Herald

 

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