GOP State Legislators Want to Weaken Child Labor Laws

It’s Equal Pay Day, a time to review the reasons why so many hard-working women find themselves chronically running short on cash.

Women need to work 15 weeks into 2011 to earn what men earned in 2010. Think about all that work: 40 hours multiplied by 15 weeks. That’s 600 hours. On top of that work, there’s the cooking, cleaning, picking up, dropping off, dressing and bathing.

But this is not news. We’ve been trying to get paycheck fairness for years.

What’s more notable right now is the GOP-led attack on child labor laws that will affect female teens disproportionately.

Republicans in several states (Utah, Ohio, Minnesota, Maine and Missouri) are proposing sweeping changes to child labor legislation, including allowing sub-minimum wages for workers under the age of 20. Fully 12 percent of young women, versus 6.9 percent of young men, are already paid sub-minimum wages. At the $5.25 per hour rate proposed by Maine Republicans, young women wouldn’t get to equal pay day until June.

And those are just the ones we count.

Studying child labor is difficult since the only way to know if workers are under 16 is if employers get work permits. Most states require work permits to make sure that younger teens are in school. But 40 percent of young workers were employed in violation of regulations requiring these permits, according to research published in the September 2008 issue of the American Journal of Public Health. The same public health study discovered that nearly 37 percent of surveyed youth were working in prohibited jobs or using equipment deemed too dangerous for young workers.

Missouri’s Republican-backed legislation would make it impossible to track minors at work since it would repeal the requirement that 14- and 15-year-olds obtain work permits. In a move to affirm Missouri’s lead in the race to the 19th century, the proposal would remove the state’s authority to inspect workplaces where teens are employed and eliminate rules requiring firms to keep records about child workers’ health, safety and work during school hours.

Currently teens can only work until 10 p.m. on school nights. Republican lawmakers, including Missouri State Sen. Jane Cunningham, Utah State Sen. Mike Lee and Maine Rep. David Burns, want kids to work until 11 p.m. I guess they’ve never heard of homework. Or eight hours of sleep.

And it doesn’t appear that they know much about the risks that young women run in the workplace.

Professor Susan Fineran, a colleague here at the University of Southern Maine’s Women and Gender Studies Program, has found that 35 percent of students surveyed reported that they’d been sexually harassed on the job during the school year. Letting young women work one more hour at night is almost sure to widen that sexual-harassment window.

Missouri parents should be worried for other reasons too. The new budget just passed by the Republican-controlled House eliminates investigators who examine child labor complaints. Nationally, and in every state, child labor laws are already barely enforced. No wonder hundreds of thousands of 16- and 17-year-old workers are injured on the job every year. In 2006, 70 teens died from on-the-job injuries.

What could be next? How about shortening the school day and using school buses to drop teens at their sub-minimum wage jobs?

Excerpted from Womens Enews. Read the full article at womensenews.org

Susan F. Feiner is professor of economics and professor of women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

Image courtesy of the National Committee on Pay Equity.

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