Newt Gingrich isn’t the only Republican who wants to relax U.S. laws that have restricted work by children for more than seven decades.
Republican governors and state lawmakers, who succeeded this year in curbing union powers, are pushing to revise their child-labor laws to help companies such as groceries get workers. Wisconsin will let employers treat teenagers as adults in pay and hours, and Maine lawmakers want to let companies keep teens working longer hours.
The moves pose a challenge to child-labor laws, established at the federal level in 1938 to protect youths from working long hours on dangerous machinery instead of going to school. Republicans and businesses that share Gingrich’s view see easing the restrictions as part of their effort to cut back government regulation while giving teenagers a chance to learn valuable work habits.
“How come it’s OK, 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?” Dick Grotton, president of the Maine Restaurant Association, based in Augusta, said in an interview. “Kids working is not a bad thing.”
The U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act sets a minimum age of 14 for most work and bars children under 18 from hazardous jobs. The law remained intact after the Supreme Court knocked down a challenge in 1941, and its champions say Gingrich is leading an effort to undermine it. Some states such as Maine have laws that exceed federal requirements, and Republican legislators are targeting the state regulations.
“This is part of a coordinated effort by conservatives across the country to use the economic crisis to shred critical worker protections,” Anne Thompson, a policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, a Washington-based group that advocates for worker rights, said in an interview.
Gingrich, leading in polls among candidates for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, used a speech at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., last month to depict the restrictions as undermining opportunities for the poor.
“It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children in, first of all, child laws, which are truly stupid,” the former House speaker said.
He reaffirmed the position during a Dec. 10 debate among the Republican candidates in Iowa, suggesting children replace union janitors in New York’s public schools.
“You give lots of poor kids a work experience in the cafeteria, in the school library, in the front office,” Gingrich said. “I’ll stand by the idea young people ought to learn how to work. Middle-class kids do it routinely. We should give poor kids the same chance to pursue happiness.”
Gingrich’s comments haven’t been embraced universally among his fellow Republicans or business groups.
“To have kids work in the library and to help out in school and to clean the blackboards does not require changing our child-labor laws,” Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is also seeking the Republican nomination, said during the Iowa debate.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business lobbying group, declined to comment on the issue. “We don’t get involved in presidential politics, and therefore we don’t weigh in on candidates’ proposals,” said Blair Latoff, a Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman.
Easing child-labor laws would most benefit companies that employ low-wage workers, including retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and operators of fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s Corp., according to Thompson of the National Employment Law Project.
Greg Rossiter, a spokesman for Wal-Mart, declined to comment. Danya Proud, a spokeswoman for McDonald’s, didn’t respond to phone and e-mail requests for comment.
Representative George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House Labor and Workforce Committee, said in an interview that attacks on child-labor laws are about “demonizing the poor.”
“A kid with a parent working two low-wage jobs to pay the rent knows what a work ethic is,” he said. “She doesn’t need any more hard knocks from the likes of Newt Gingrich. What she needs is access to great education and her parents need a vibrant job market. You get neither when you repeal child-labor laws and replace Mom and Dad with underage children.”
While Gingrich’s comments may appeal to conservatives in Republican primaries, they would hurt him in a contest against President Barack Obama, Tobe Berkovitz, a political communications professor at Boston University, said.
“It adds to his baggage if he needed to slink to the middle in a general election,” he said in an interview. “That’s one of the charms and one of the foibles of Newt Gingrich. What was meant to be a comment on developing a work ethic now looks like he is stepping over the line into trashing protections for young people.”
In Maine, Republicans lawmakers rolled back child-labor laws this year, with backing from Governor Paul LePage. Legislation increased the number of hours teenagers could work and let companies pay them a “training wage.” Under the pay measure, workers younger than 20 would earn $5.25 an hour, less than the state’s $7.50 an hour minimum wage.
“I don’t see why kids can’t go to work when they are 14 or 15 -- it makes no sense to me,” LePage said in an October interview with the Augusta-based Capitol News Service.
Wisconsin rolled back state laws this year limiting the hours 16- and 17-year-olds can work.
Wisconsin and Maine changed their laws in response to lobbying by groups representing restaurants and grocery stores, which said restricting teenage labor burdened businesses with cumbersome paperwork.
“It wasn’t like they were trying to overwork these kids or create a sweatshop,” said Michelle Kussow, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Grocers Association. “They just want to give kids that great first opportunity you get in a grocery store.”
James Sherk, a labor-policy analyst at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, which advocates for free markets, said Gingrich’s position goes beyond the Republican mainstream.
“There is quite a difference between child labor and teenage labor,” Sherk said in an interview. “Policies focusing on teenage labor allows them to get work experience, teaches them to wake up in the morning on a Saturday.”
Some Republican lawmakers would go as far as Gingrich. In Missouri, Republican State Sen. Jane Cunningham sought unsuccessfully this year to eliminate a ban on employment of children younger than 14. She doesn’t plan to try again, according to Kit Crancer, Cunningham’s chief of staff.
In Utah, first-term Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, who is supported by groups affiliated with the Tea Party, posted a video on his YouTube channel, saying the federal child-labor law violates the Constitution.
The federal law is “an interference with how parents chose to raise their kids,” he said.
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