GOP's Attack on Child Labor Threatens Our DaughtersBy Susan Feiner
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
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.
Gender disparities in child labor are startling. In the 16-19 age group 176,000 boys in 2010 were paid below the minimum wage, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For girls last year the number was 304,000.
Fully 12 percent of young women, versus 6.9 percent of young men, are already paid sub-minimum wages. These teens mostly work in food preparation or serving, with jobs such as burger flipping, hash slinging, French frying and soda jerking with the highest levels of teen employment and sub-minimum wages.
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.
At the $5.25 per hour rate proposed by Maine Republicans, young women wouldn't get to equal pay day until June.
The Ones We Don't CountAnd 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.
Maine's proposed legislation isn't any better. It would allow employers to pay teens a mere $5.25 per hour for the first 180 days on the job. Back when I myself was a teen starting out at work in 1970, I would have earned just 95 cents an hour. I repeat, 95 cents per hour. The federal minimum wage has been above $1 per hour since 1956!
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.
Risky WorkplacesAnd 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, shared her research just this week at a Department of Education conference in Washington, D.C. She 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. Maybe that's the desired result? Why else would Missouri Republicans advocate letting children under 16 work in any capacity in a motel, resort or hotel where sleeping accommodations are furnished? Currently such work is tightly regulated.
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. In 2010, those investigators discovered more than $450,000 in violations of Missouri's child labor laws and recovered more than $700,000 for workers from minimum and prevailing wage violations.
These fines are a tiny fraction of actual wage and hour violations. Nationally and in every state child labor laws are barely enforced. In North Carolina, for example, of employed teens nearly 37 percent reported a violation of the hazardous occupations orders, such as prohibited jobs or use of equipment, 40 percent reported a work permit violation, 15 percent reported working off the clock and 11 percent reported working past the latest hour allowed on a school night, according to the American Journal of Public Health study.
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.
In spite of all this, a trio of conservative groups (Generation Joshua Project, the Home School Legal Defense Association and Parentsrights.org) oppose the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.
What could be next? How about shortening the school day and using school buses to drop teens at their sub-minimum wage jobs?
Susan F. Feiner is professor of economics and professor of women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.
For more information:"US Child Labor Violations in the Retail and Service Industries: Findings From a National Survey of Working Adolescents" study: