Cheers for ‘Child’ Labor

by Katrina Trinko

In Maine, child labor’s on the cusp of a comeback.

That’s terrific.

Because, contrary to the horrified labor advocates covered by the Huffington Post, making the employee market easier for teens (no one’s suggesting eight-year-olds be hauled into factories) to enter is something that will likely benefit teens economically. The controversial proposals? Maine Gov. Paul LePage and the GOP legislators want to allow teens to be paid $2 less than minimum wage for the first 90 days of employment and to permit teens 16 and older to to work more than 20 hours per week during the school year.

I’m fine with the second measure; teens who prefer not to work more are free to tell their bosses so. And I’m thrilled about the first measure, because with teen unemployment at 20.9 percent, it’s important to give teens more job opportunities. Lowering the minimum wage for teens can make that happen.

That’s the result suggested by a 2010 study by the Employment Policies Institute, which concluded that the minimum wage increases between 2007 to 2009 (when the federal minimum wage jumped from $5.15 to $7.25) had lead to 114,000 fewer teens finding jobs. Heritage Foundation labor policy expert James Sherk estimated last year that for every 10 percent hike in minimum wage, there is a 2 percent decline in teen employment.

Over the past decade, teen jobs have significantly declined; a 2010 study from Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies reported that if 2000 teen employment levels had held steady, about 8.7 million teens would have been employed last summer. Instead, 4.9 million teens were. That’s a reality I’ve seen in my own family’s experience: I was able to find work, first at a fast food joint and later at a bookstore, during summers as a teen. For my twin sisters, now almost 18, it’s been a different story: despite applying to scores of retail stores and fast foods in past summers, they haven’t found work. Once again, they’re hoping that this summer will be different, and they’ll be able to get a job and help save for college — and gain the skills and experience to help them land better paid jobs in their future.

Teens across the nation are hoping for the same thing. Legislators should help them by allowing employers to pay teens below minimum wage.