By Rep. David Burns
No one has been more surprised than me by the criticism I have received for sponsoring LD 1346, An Act to Enhance Access to the Workplace by Minors. I am amazed by the extremely negative and sometimes ludicrous and hysterical comments and articles this bill has prompted.
Did any of the critics read the bill or even the title? Or did you just read an editorial from someone looking for another "controversial" issue?
The intent of offering this legislation was not to "make" minors do anything. It is to give them an opportunity to get their first job, learn how to do it, develop a work ethic and get paid in the meantime. It is not to displace adult employees, nor to require minors to do adult work for less money.
This bill was offered as an opportunity to give minors more access to entry-level jobs that employers cannot afford to fill otherwise. Many employers need unskilled and part-time workers and are willing to hire minors to learn and do these jobs. They cannot, however, afford to hire them at the full adult minimum wage of $7.50 and pay expensive benefits.
Many minors coming into the work force initially have no experience, and perhaps no work ethic, and don't merit the minimum wage until they learn a job. It takes time and patience for the employer to train these new workers.
The small changes on the hours a student would be allowed to work will also help employers and employees agree to a schedule that actually works for them. It permits a minor under 18 to work no more than six consecutive days, with the same restrictions regarding school days as already exist, such as finishing by 10 p.m. before a school day.
Federal law allows states to adopt a minimum wage for minors ($4.25) for a period of 90 days. Thirteen states, including Maine, set minimum youth rates higher than the federal level; 25 states set the minimum at the federal level. Another nine states have no minimum wage at all or are below the federal standard.
LD 1346 will need to be amended to meet that 90-day standard (instead of the originally proposed 180), just as it will be changed to provide a training wage of $5.62 (instead of $5.25). And that is the intent of the legislation - to open the discussion and improve upon what I and many others believe are overly restrictive limitations.
The Legislature and state have systematically taken away opportunities for young people to join the work force. We have usurped the responsibility of families to make intelligent decisions and transferred that responsibility to school officials and the state. We have prevented families from allowing their youngsters to do many traditional jobs that Maine kids did in the summer.
No one is suggesting that teenagers should work such long hours that they are too tired for schoolwork. No parent, school official or legislator that cares about kids would intentionally let that happen. But in my 25 years of serving as a policy maker for elementary and high schools, I have seen very few examples of that happening with students working part-time.
In contrast, I have seen many situations where kids were worn out from a very demanding schedule in sports, practices and traveling long distances to compete. Much more troublesome are the kids who are too tired to be educated due to hanging out until the late hours with little or no restraints. Many of them play video games at all hours of the night. Kids fail to get to school regularly because of this, and when they do, they have a hard time staying awake. Where is the outrage about these wasted years?
We all know of some kids and teenagers that work hard at everything they do; however, they are the exception. Most of us have to be taught a work ethic, just as we have to be taught honesty and integrity. These rarely come naturally for humans. That primary responsibility belongs to parents and not the state or even the school.
As to my critics, rather than attack someone for suggesting that there may be a better way to provide opportunity for our young people, why not provide some constructive criticism and help address the problem? And if you don't think we have a problem, take an honest look at the teenage depression and suicide rates. How about the folks under 40 that are on our welfare rolls?
We can do better. We used to.
State Rep. David Burns (R-Whiting) is House chair of the Government Oversight Committee