WASHINGTON -- Far from places like Ohio and Wisconsin, Maine has become a new battleground in the labor fight. Gov. Paul LePage (R) recently sparked the anger of the union community by ordering a mural depicting workers throughout the state's history removed from the Department of Labor. Now, Republican members of the state legislature are attempting to loosen child labor laws that the community fought hard to put into place.
The minimum wage in Maine is $7.50 an hour, and there is no training or subminimum wage for students. But under a new piece of legislation introduced in the state's House of Representatives, employers would be able to pay anyone under the age of 20 as little as $5.25 an hour for their first 180 days on the job.
The bill, LD 1346, also eliminates the maximum number of hours a minor 16 years of age or older can work on a school day and allows a minor under the age of 16 to work up to four hours on a school day during hours when school is not in session.
With Maine's unemployment above 7 percent, state Rep. Paul Gilbert (D) wonders why Republicans are pushing to create a pool of cheap labor when so many people are begging for jobs.
"If we had a shortage of job applicants or potential workers, then you could look at other populations to ease that strain on the workforce," Gilbert told The Huffington Post. "But we don't have that right now. We have an excess of job applicants here in Maine, as well across the country."
The state Senate is also currently considering a bill (LD 516) that would allow 16- and 17-year-old students to work until 11:00 p.m. on school nights. Currently, they're allowed to work until 10:00 p.m. It would also allow students to work for a total of 24 hours per week, four more than current law allows. Senators on the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee are split along party lines on the bill, but it's likely to pass when the full body votes on it--the Senate, like the House, is controlled by Republicans.
Democrats in the legislature, along with progressives, labor groups, and advocates for women and children, are opposed to the bills, while industry groups such as the Maine Restaurant Association argue that the current law is too strict compared to others in New England.
In a press release sent out by the Maine House Democratic office yesterday, Sen. Troy Jackson, the lead Democrat on the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development (LCRED) Committee, said, "While the Governor is distracted by artwork that makes him angry, the Republicans in legislature are rolling back protections for Maine kids."
The sponsor of LD 1346, Rep. David Burns (R), did not return a request for comment. But co-sponsor Rep. Bruce Bickford (R) said that the government should stop standing in the way on child labor issues.
"This is in no way an attempt to abuse child labor, which some may look at and say, 'We've fought hard for kids and we've done this or that,'" he said. "Kids have parents. Let the parents be responsible for the kids. It's not up to the government to regulate everybody's life and lifestyle. Take the government away. Let the parents take care of their kids."
Bickford said he supported making it easier for young people to get a job so that they can earn some extra spending money and build up their resume and skills, arguing that right now, students have plenty of time after school that they could fill with employment.
"I would support removing the cap for daily and weekly hours, but I would also support amending it to six hours when school is in session, so the student could get home from school -- say 3:00 -- and could work from 4:00-9:00. They'd still have plenty of time for homework," Bickford added. "Most of these kids are generally up well past 10:00. They could work a 3:00-9:00 shift."
Gilbert disagreed, saying it could end up being a 14 or 15-hour day for students who should be prioritizing education. Gilbert also said that since many young people do seasonal work that doesn't last more than 180 days, essentially they'll be taking a $2-per-hour pay cut.
Testifying recently against the proposed change to the law, Maine Children Alliance President and CEO Dean Crocker said that with 20 percent of students in the state currently not graduating high school, the state needs to do everything it can to prioritize education: "Letting work once again interfere with the education is not the step we should take."
Other co-sponsors of LD 1346 were less enthusiastic about some of the provisions in the legislation than Bickford was. Rep. Eleanor Espling (R) told The Huffington Post that she primarily supported the bill because it would allow parents more flexibility over the work opportunities of home-schooled children. Right now, they need to obtain a work permit from the local school district, but under the new bill, they would be able to simply get the sign-off from their parents.
Espling said she noticed that federal law allows a training wage of $4.25 an hour for the first 90 days of employment for a young person under 20 years of age. "I think what we might see as this bill goes through the committee process is that they'll find they need to get it more in line with federal standards," she added.
Rep. Deborah Sanderson (R), another co-sponsor, also said she has some "concerns" with the $5.25 an hour provision, although believes "there may be positions for workers in the younger brackets that it could be appropriate for certain duties."
"My main motivating reason for co-sponsoring this bill was to open the discussion in regard to expanding the hours that the different age brackets can work," she said. "I was a staffing coordinator for a company in Augusta and there were many times where, depending on the students' school schedules, they could have easily worked more, and indeed wanted to work more, than Maine statute allowed. Specifically, the 16 to 18-year-olds. As long as there are some limits in place so their education time isn't compromised, I believe we do a disservice to these kids who want to work by telling them they can't."
LD 1346 was referred to the House LCRED committee on Tuesday, although a schedule to debate the bill has not yet been set. LD 516 is now facing a full vote by the Senate.
According to the Maine Women's Lobby, which has been one the leading voices in opposition to the two bills, the state's child labor laws were put into place in 1847 after educators complained that children working long hours were falling asleep in class.
"The current law limiting working hours for 16 and 17 year-olds was forged through bipartisan agreement in the legislature about the need to balance employer interests with the health and welfare of Maine children," reads a statement by the group. "According to the Legislative Record, in debate on the Senate floor, the original law was referred to as the 'Put Learning First, Put Working Second' bill."
Matt Schlobohm, executive director of Maine AFL-CIO, argued that what is happening with the child labor laws is part of a larger agenda by state Republicans.
"The Department of Labor, for the past 20 years, supported the basic policy framework that...prioritized younger workers' education first and foremost, while also valuing the education they gained through work experience," said Schlobohm. "They really tried to strike an appropriate balance where young people could gain an education that could guide them through the rest of their life. I think there's a whole host of rollbacks of workers' rights and basic workplace standards now."