AUGUSTA — The Maine House of Representatives on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to a bill that would loosen restrictions in the state's child labor law.
The legislation allows 16- and 17-year-olds to work longer hours and more often when school is in session. It increases the maximum number of hours worked in a week from 20 to 24. High school-age students would be allowed to work until 10:15 p.m. on a school night.
The bill also increases the number of hours students can work on a school day from four hours to six.
Republicans argued that the bill allows students to earn more money and develop a work ethic. Democrats, who tried to amend the legislation during Wednesday's floor debate, said the bill could adversely affect student achievement and doubled as a favor to the restaurant and hospitality lobby.
Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, the bill's sponsor, has said the proposal is designed to give kids an opportunity to save more money for college or contribute to their families' finances.
Plowman believes the bill would curb minors from working multiple jobs to skirt the state's current law, which prevents 16- and 17-year-olds from working more than 20 hours in one week for a single employer.
During the floor debate, Rep. Kerri Prescott, R-Topsham, said increasing hours during the workweek was an option, not mandatory. Prescott also rejected Democrats' claim that the bill was child labor legislation.
"It's not about children working; it's about young adults working," Prescott said.
Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, said it was "immoral and unconscionable" for Maine to deny teenagers the ability to work more and pay their bills.
Democrats acknowledged that students may not choose to work the maximum hours. However, they said, employers could pressure students to work more.
Rep. Timothy Driscoll, D-Westbrook, said the bill should have been titled "An act to allow our children to be exploited by the restaurant and hospitality industry." Driscoll, who serves on the Labor Committee that worked the legislation, said the restaurant and hospitality lobbies were the only groups that testified in favor of the legislation.
"I didn't see any parents there and I didn't see any kids there, which is good because they were probably in school," Driscoll said.
Rep. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, said the bill had the wrong focus, given the high rate unemployment.
"We should be creating jobs for people's parents, not spending time and energy increasing the amount of hours 16- and 17-year-olds can work," Herbig said.
Opponents say 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, extracurricular activities.
Industry groups, including the Maine Restaurant Association, have argued that Maine's law is 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.
The bill has already won preliminary approval from the Senate.
The House is expected to perform a second reading on the legislation Thursday before sending it back to the Senate for enactment.