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Maine Lawmaker Proposes to Loosen Limits on Teens' Work Hours
03/09/2011   Reported By: Jay Field

If you're 16 and want to take on a part-time job, Maine law says you can't work more than 20 hours a week during the school year. But that could change, if a bill before the state Legislature were to pass. Maine's hospitality and tourism industries say loosening the law a bit would help them alleviate chronic labor shortages in the spring and summer. Critics worry it would stretch teenagers too thin and hurt their performance in school at a critical time.

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Maine's existing child labor laws took effect in 1991--the product of a bipartisan compromise. At the time, there was concern about the balence between employers interests and the health, well-being and educational futures of Maine teens. So lawmakers limited the amount of time a teenager can work during the school year to twenty hours-a-week and four hours-a-day. They're the toughest child labor laws in New England.

"We have no other restrictions on any other things they do, They can play sports 32 hours-a-week. They can watch TV 32 hours-a-week. They can skateboard 32 hours-a-week," says Republican state Sen. Debra Plowman. Plowman sees no good reason why teenagers shouldn't be able to work thirty-two hours-a-week too.

Plowman is sponsoring a bill that would let them do just that. It would also allow teens to work six hours in a given day, instead of four, and permit them to stay on the job an hour later in the evening---to 11:00 on school nights and midnight on weekends.

"By making it permissive, then the kids who do need to save for college, who do need to have more income, for whatever reason, can learn how to balance earlier than most kids do the need to work and the need to get good grades," she says.

Plowman says it will also give kids who may not want or be able to go to college the chance to get a head start on a career skill they can take with them into the workforce.

But critics of Plowman's bill say its precisely the wrong direction to be heading in---at a time when policymakers and educators say Maine's and the nation's future competitiveness depend on the development of a more educated, more highly-skilled workforce.

Laura Harper is director of public policy for the Maine Women's Lobby, which opposes Plowman's bill. "We recognize the best chance for a young person to succeed, especially financially and economically, is to have a strong foundation in public education,"

Harper says when already over-extended teenagers log more hours at a part-time job, their grades suffer. A study published in the winter edition of the journal Child Development found that teens who worked more than 20 hours a week were at higher risk for bad grades and behavior problems such as drug use and delinquency.

Harper remembers her own experience working at a toy store in Augusta during high school. "I don't know how well I would have done if my employer had been able to employ me up to 32 hours a week," she says.

But Maine's hospitality and tourism industries, which employ scores of 16- and 17-year-olds, say Harper's concerns are overblown. Greg Dougal runs the Maine Innkeepers Association. He testified before a legislative committee in favor of loosening Maine's child labor laws. Dougal admits that passage of the bill would give his members a big financial boost.

"We have potential labor shortages all the time," he says. "We're a part-time industry--both in the sense that people work part-time and the jobs can be somewhat temporary. So oftentimes they are filled by high school and college students and people just looking for part-time employment."

Dougal says labor shortages can be especially bad in the spring and fall, when kids go back to school. He says that unless the laws are loosened to bring them more in line with those throughout the rest of New England, Maine's inns, hotels and restaurants will continue to be at comptitive disadvantege.


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