LePage Sparks a Child Labor Debate in Maine

By: - April 27, 2011 12:00 am

Maine Governor Paul LePage thinks letting young people ages 16 and over work longer hours is a good idea. Critics have invoked images of child labor from the industrial era to argue against the plan.

Many long-dormant personnel issues have re-emerged in the states this year as Republican governors seek to change the rules for managing the public workforce. But nobody expected controversy over the personnel issue that has come to the surface in Maine: child labor.

One might have thought that debate on the issue had ended in 1938, when a federal law all but ended the practice of using younger minors in the workforce. Indeed, Maine has regulated child labor since 1847, when it enacted a law that sought to limit the exploitation of child workers by requiring that they have formal schooling.

But Governor Paul LePage is promoting legislation this year that would move toward deregulating non-adult employment. The Maine legislature is considering bills that would remove any limit on the number of hours children 16 or older can work on school days, raise their maximum hours each week to 24, up from 20, and allow them to work until 11 p.m., rather than 10 p.m.

“I went to work at 11 years old,” LePage said at a recent town hall meeting. “I became governor. It’s not a big deal. Work doesn’t hurt anybody.”

Describing what LePage wants as a “child labor” proposal might be a bit of a stretch, even though Le Page’s critics are doing so. No one in the state, including LePage, is arguing that children should be sent to work at hard physical labor instead of attending classes.

The issues before the legislature have more to do with how much time teenagers should be allowed to spend flipping burgers after school — and how much they should be paid to do so. But a convergence of events has led many residents of the state to link the proposal with draconian labor policies that prevailed in much of the country early in the last century.

Actually, the teenage employment bills might have passed through the legislature quietly by now had LePage not made a controversial decision to remove a labor history mural from the state Department of Labor headquarters last month. Among other scenes, the removed mural depicts child workers carrying pails, with a backdrop of photographs showing other children toiling away at strenuous factory work.

The governor deemed the mural to be biased toward organized labor at the expense of business interests. LePage also ordered the renaming of conference rooms at the Department of Labor that had been named after labor leaders. One of the rooms had been named after William Looney, a Republican state legislator who helped pass child labor laws in the 1800s.

Invoking history

 The governor’s critics wasted no time in pouncing on the issue. Maine TV was flooded last week with repeat showings of an ad featuring an image of an impoverished child worker from the industrial era. “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it,” a voiceover says as newspaper clips about the mural controversy flash across the screen. “Protect our children,” the ad says. “Don’t roll back child labor laws.” It was sponsored by two liberal organizations, the Maine People’s Alliance and the National Employment Law Project.

LePage’s office takes umbrage at the comparison. “We feel that was farcical and far from the truth,” says Adrienne Bennett, a spokesperson for the governor. “That is implying that we are going to go back to those times and that’s something that we find ridiculous.”

Legislative proponents of the measures are equally insistent that the commercial is a cheap shot. They say current state law is overly burdensome on employers and doesn’t allow teenagers enough flexibility to gain experience in the job market. The governor’s office argues that allowing students to work more hours could help them save more money for college, citing increasing loan debt among Maine students.

In addition to loosening the limits on hours of work, another bill now being considered in the legislature would allow employees younger than 20 years old to be paid a “training wage” of .25 per hour for up to 180 days. That’s far less than Maine’s .50 per hour minimum wage. LePage has expressed support for this overall approach as well, although he has expressed concerns about whether it would be consistent with federal law.

“The administration strongly supports the idea of allowing a training wage to give youth real work experience while encouraging businesses to offer it by keeping it low-cost,” Michael Roland, deputy director of the Maine Department of Labor, testified in a legislative hearing. Opponents argue that if employers were allowed to pay students less than other workers, they might start firing longtime employees in favor of cheaper labor, or firing students as soon as they became ineligible for the lower wage.

Unexpected flap

In a recent article in the Portland Press Herald , Republican state Representative David Burns, the sponsor of the “training wage” bill, expressed surprise over the controversy that has erupted around the issue. Burns argued that he only wanted to give minors access to entry-level jobs that employers could not afford to fill at higher wages.

“The Legislature and state have systematically taken away opportunities for young people to join the workforce,” Burns wrote. “We have usurped the responsibility of families to make intelligent decisions and transferred that responsibility to school officials and the state.”

State Representative Mark Bryant, a Democrat and leading critic of the idea, says that even though decades have passed since the nation’s industrial era, the fundamentals of the debate are the same. “We don’t want to have our youth working more hours while they’re trying to go to school, and working for less money,” he says. “That’s just unacceptable.”

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Melissa Maynard

Melissa Maynard oversees the Pew state fiscal health project’s Fiscal 50 online resource, which helps policymakers understand fiscal, economic, and demographic trends affecting their states by tracking tax revenue, reserves, employment rates, Medicaid spending, and other issues important to long-term fiscal health.