AUGUSTA — The sponsor of a new child labor bill says employers should have the flexibility to pay workers under age 20 a "training wage."
Opponents countered that the proposal devalues young workers and takes money out of the hands of laborers and gives it to business.
LD 1346 suggests several significant changes to Maine's child labor law, most notably a 180-day period during which workers under age 20 would earn $5.25 an hour.
The state's current minimum wage is $7.50 an hour.
Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, is sponsoring the bill, which includes eliminating the maximum hours a minor over 16 can work during school days.
Burns said the bill empowers both employers and employees and that employers would have more opportunities to hire minors.
"An employer’s got to have employees, so they can decide what they want to pay," Burns said. "The student wants to have a job and they can decide what they’re willing to work for."
But Democrats and labor advocates have blasted the proposal. The bill has also caught the attention of the Maine Democratic Party, which was quick to link the bill to Gov. Paul LePage's decision to remove a mural depicting child mill workers and other moments in Maine history from the Department of Labor.
"It's just too perfect after the flap with the mural," party chairman Ben Grant said. "First, the governor tries to whitewash history and now this bill is trying to erase the progress of child labor laws itself."
Burns' bill would effectively revive the teenage wage that was repealed by the Legislature more than 20 years ago.
In 2007, a pair of Republican lawmakers sponsored a bill similar to the one Burns is proposing. That bill was voted down unanimously by the Labor Committee amid opposition from the Labor Department.
In his written testimony, former department director William Peabody said the purpose of the state's child labor law was to "prevent exploitation of our youngest workers by limiting their exposure to hazardous conditions, maintaining the value of their work and balancing work and school."
It's unclear how the current administration will view Burns' bill. Dan Demeritt, a spokesman for LePage, said the administration had yet to review the proposal.
However, the governor is backing a bill sponsored by Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, that loosens work restrictions for 16- and 17-year-olds during the school year. That bill is headed for a vote in the Senate.
It originally proposed allowing high-school-age kids to work up to 32 hours a week during the school year, a provision the governor supported.
Plowman's bill was eventually amended after significant push-back from labor groups.
Similar resistance to Burns' bill has already begun.
Laura Harper of the Maine Women's Lobby said the proposal undermines efforts to "teach teens the value of hard work."
"... this instead sends them the message that they aren't valued," Harper said. "That doesn't fit with Maine values. At a time when business leaders recognize that student achievement is critical to Maine's economic growth, this bill will shortchange students and impair Maine's economic success."
"I'm sure some will support this and some won't," he said. "Some will see this as a step back toward child labor. It's not."
Burns, who represents a rural district, was asked if he was concerned that the bill would discourage teens from working because the $5.25 wage wouldn't be worth the driving expense.
"That's a decision they (workers) have to make," he said. "Is it worth it for me, a 17-year old, to drive 25 miles to work if I'm only making $6 an hour or $5.50? We have to make those decisions all the time as adults. It's not the employers' responsibility to compensate somebody for how far they have to drive."
Burns said he'd heard from a lot of parents who are supportive of his bill. He hoped to receive the backing of trade groups like the Maine Restaurant Association, which has supported Plowman's bill.
He said his bill gives employers more hiring options.
"Any time you're putting options on the table you’re improving things," he said.
Democrats and labor advocates disagree. They say Plowman and Burns are putting too much emphasis on work and not enough on education.
Harper cited a 2000 U.S. Department of Labor study that suggested "working a limited number of hours in the junior and senior years of high school has a positive effect on educational attainment."
Democrats on the Legislature's Labor Committee were highly skeptical of Burns' bill.
Rep. Timothy Driscoll, D-Westbrook, said the two child labor bills under consideration would result in "kids working more hours during the school week and making less money."
A public hearing has not been scheduled for Burns' bill.