WASHINGTON -- Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) is backing changes to the state's child labor laws, arguing that starting work young paid off for him.
"I went to work at 11 years old," he said at a town hall meeting on Friday in Topsham, Maine. "I became governor. It's not a big deal. Work doesn't hurt anybody."
The minimum wage in Maine is $7.50 an hour, and there is no training or subminimum wage for students. But under new legislation, it would be legal under state law for employers to pay anyone under the age of 20 as little as $5.25 an hour for their first 180 days on the job.
The bill, LD 1346, also eliminates the maximum number of hours a minor 16 years of age or older can work on a school day and allows a minor under the age of 16 to work up to four hours on a school day during hours when school is not in session.
The state Senate is also currently considering a bill (LD 516) that would allow 16- and 17-year-old students to work until 11:00 p.m. on school nights. Currently, they're allowed to work until 10:00 p.m. Students could also work for a total of 24 hours per week, four more than current law allows.
At Friday's town hall meeting, LePage argued that a training wage would allow students to gain work skills that would benefit them when looking for jobs as adults.
"The wage that we're talking about is a training wage for young kids -- 14, 15 years old," he explained in comments first noted by Maine blog Dirigo Blue. "They can go out and get a permit, they learn to go to work, they learn work skills, so that as they get older -- and it's only for a short period of time. I forget if it's 90 days. Then they have to go up to the full minimum."
The 90-day period LePage is referencing is part of an amendment offered by LD 1346's sponsor on April 15.
"Because my initial bill language does not line up with Federal law, I ask you to amend two portions of this bill," said state Rep. David Burns (R) in testimony before the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee. "The training period should be changed to 90 days, rather than 180 days. Also, the minimum training wage should be changed to $5.62 per hour which is 75 percent of Maine's adult minimum wage and also consistent with what federal law allows."
The amendment has not yet been adopted by the committee.
There were some other confusing portions of LePage's comments, including the fact that he referred to a single bill on child labor laws, when in fact there are two. He also said that the new legislation would allow students on "vacation" from school to work up to 40 hours.
Laura Harper, director of public policy at the Maine Women's Lobby -- which has been one of the leading groups advocating against the changes -- told The Huffington Post that this statement isn't correct.
"The bill does nothing to change how many hours a student can work during ‘vacation,'" she said, pointing out that current law already allows a student to work up to 50 hours while school is not in session.
WATCH (video by Dirigo Blue):
With Maine's unemployment above 7 percent, state Rep. Paul Gilbert (D) wondered why Republicans are pushing to create a pool of cheap labor when so many people are begging for jobs.
"If we had a shortage of job applicants or potential workers, then you could look at other populations to ease that strain on the workforce," Gilbert told The Huffington Post. "But we don't have that right now. We have an excess of job applicants here in Maine."
Harper said that there is a real chance that the state's child labor laws could be changed.
"I am deeply worried that some erosion of our child labor protections will become law," she said. "I feel like the public spoke loudly and clearly during the public hearing on the most recent bill. However, I think that there's still this tantalizing opportunity in some legislators' eyes to reach a compromise. People like to be seen as moderate. They like to be seen as coming together and being bipartisan, and they like to be seen as being business-friendly. So I do worry that some legislators will feel like it's appropriate to change some of our existing protections in response to the requests from the industry."
Last week, the National Employment Law Project (NELP) and the progressive Maine People's Alliance (MPA) put out a new ad criticizing LePage for supporting attempts to "roll back child labor laws."
On LePage's statement that work doesn't hurt anybody, Harper vehemently disagreed: "Just look at the studies linking increases in substance abuse, delinquency, on the job injury and teen pregnancy with teens working long hours -- I think it is a big deal, and yes it does hurt somebody."