Newt Gingrich got a lot of attention—mostly negative—late last year when he told an audience at Harvard University that he would do away with “truly stupid” child labor laws that prevent kids in poor neighborhoods from being put to work. He then one-upped himself by suggesting during the Dec. 10 GOP debate in Iowa that poor kids could learn the value of a hard day’s work by taking the jobs of union janitors in New York public schools.
Gingrich’s comments were seen at the time as just another example of his seeming inability to refrain from saying whatever pops into his head. Yet his speech reflected changes already occurring in two states. Republican politicians in Maine and Wisconsin have relaxed decades-old child labor laws, enacted to protect children from being forced to work long hours under dangerous conditions, claiming they no longer make sense.
In Maine, State Senator Debra Plowman and State Representative David Burns, both Republicans, sponsored bills last year to increase the state’s limit on the number of hours, from 20 to 32 a week, that 16- and 17-year-olds can work and to allow employers to pay them $5.25 an hour—$2.25 less than the state’s minimum wage. “How come it’s O.K., even exemplary, for teenagers to spend 40 hours a week in sports, glee club, chorus, debate society, or any other select activity sanctioned by the social elite, but if you are a teenager who wants to work or needs to work, there are limits?” says Dick Grotton, president of the Maine Restaurant Assn., which lobbied for the bills. “Kids working is not a bad thing.” The Maine AFL-CIO opposed the proposal, arguing that kids could get hurt at work and would be less focused in school. Lawmakers compromised and passed a law, signed in May by GOP Governor Paul LePage, that allows teenagers to work 24 hours a week and requires them to punch out by 10:15 p.m.
Even with the changes, Maine’s new child labor law is still stricter than federal standards that have remained virtually unchanged since 1938, when the Fair Labor Standards Act first laid out guidelines to protect children from working in factories during school hours. Under that law, kids must be at least 14 to get a job. (Farms have their own rules, which the Labor Dept. is working to make more stringent.) Most work in industries defined as “hazardous”—manufacturing, mining, food processing, outside window washing, working in boiler rooms—is off-limits to minors. When school is in session, 14- and 15-year-olds are barred from working before 7 a.m. and after 7 p.m. The federal law leaves it up to the states to decide on work-hour rules for kids 16 and over.
Retailers and the service industry are behind the movement to relax child labor laws, and grocery industry lobbyists plan to push the issue in other states. Says James Sherk, a labor analyst at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank: “You’re not terribly likely to be injured as a cashier in Wal-Mart.” Opponents see a power grab by GOP leaders who they say want to dilute the power of unions with cheap labor and weaken government regulation. “This is part of a coordinated effort by conservatives across the country to use the economic crisis to shred critical worker protections,” says Anne Thompson, a policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, a New York-based group that advocates for worker rights. Under federal law, teenagers have to be paid only $4.25 an hour during their first three months on the job, making them attractive low-wage hires who could displace workers earning $7.25, the federal minimum wage for adults.
Wisconsin, which last year outlawed collective bargaining rights for most public employees under GOP Governor Scott Walker, also adopted a major change to its child labor laws. State Representative Robin Vos and State Senator Alberta Darling, both Republicans, inserted an amendment into the state’s budget bill in late June, days before Walker signed it on July 1. Under the old rules, 16- and 17-year-olds couldn’t work more than 26 hours during a school week and more than 50 hours a week during vacations. The new law, now in effect, lifts those restrictions. Michelle Kussow, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Grocers Assn., which worked to repeal the old guideline, says hiring more teenagers as grocery baggers is hardly a throwback to Upton Sinclair. “It wasn’t like [our members] were trying to overwork these kids or create a sweatshop,” says Kussow. “They just want to give kids that great first opportunity you get in a grocery store.”