AUGUSTA — Groups representing restaurants and hotels sparred with worker advocates on Wednesday over a bill that would ease work restrictions within the state's 20-year-old child labor law.
The legislation is sponsored by Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, and backed by Gov. Paul LePage. Both believe high school-age students should be allowed to work longer hours and more often during the school year.
Opponents said the proposal would dial back child-labor protections enacted in 1991 to prevent employers from pressuring minors into working longer hours. They also worried the proposal would shift emphasis from education and school-sponsored, extra-curricular activities.
Currently, 16- and 17-year-olds can work a maximum of 20 hours per week when school is in session. On school days, students can work a maximum of four hours a day and no later than 10 p.m.
Plowman's bill would increase the weekly limit by 12 hours, from 20 to 32 hours. It would also allow minors to work six-hour days, up until 11 p.m.
Plowman originally proposed reverting to federal law by removing the limits altogether. That proposal was supported by LePage, but Plowman changed it amid pressure from worker advocates.
Plowman said her amended bill was designed to allow students to save money for college and to work jobs with later shifts.
The amended bill is still opposed by worker advocates.
Laura Harper of the Maine Women's Lobby told the Legislature's Labor Committee the bill could hurt classroom performance. Drawing from her own experience as a teenager, Harper said her employer would often schedule her to work the maximum 20 hours allowed under law.
Matt Schlobohm of the Maine AFL-CIO said Plowman's proposal rolled back protections that were established when educators were complaining that children were falling asleep in class after working too many hours.
"This legislation takes us back 20 years," Schlobohm said.
Industry groups, including the Maine Restaurant Association, argued Wednesday that Maine's law was too strict compared to child labor laws in other New England states. For example, Vermont law aligns with federal law for 16- and 17-year olds and imposes no work limits during the school year.
Grotton said Maine's law "penalized" employers. But Democrats on the panel wondered what was driving the proposal.
"I'm trying to figure out where this is coming from," Rep. Paul Gilbert, D-Jay, said. "Everybody says this is for the kids, but I don't see any kids (in the committee room)."
Rep. Robert Hunt, D-Buxton, worried the proposal would allow employers to "coax kids to work more than they want."
Grotton said those decisions would be made by students and their parents.
"But what if the parent isn't as involved as most of us would like?" Hunt asked.
Representatives from the Department of Labor testified in favor of the bill. The department is now overseen by the LePage administration.
In 2000 the Department of Labor produced a 16-page informational flier outlining Maine's child labor laws. The flier also described the dangers of students working too many hours during the school year, including workplace fatigue and operating machinery designed for adults.
Plowman's bill drew a sharp rebuke from Charlotte Warren, associate director of the Women's Lobby. In a release titled "What's next — running with scissors?" Warren blasted LePage's support for the bill.
"Gutting child labor laws does nothing to increase jobs," she wrote.