Morgan Jackson 18, of Scarborough works at Beal’s ice cream shop in Portland last month. “I really enjoy working, I enjoy having my own spending money, being able to have a car,” she said. Gov. Paul LePage wants more youths to do the same. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Morgan Jackson started earning a paycheck when she was 12, picking strawberries on a neighbor’s farm in Scarborough.

These days she scoops at Beal’s ice cream shop on Veranda Street in Portland, in between studying for three advance-placement classes at Scarborough High School and training as a kickboxer – she also has a black belt in Taekwondo.

“I really enjoy working, I enjoy having my own spending money, being able to have a car,” said Jackson, 18. “My parents have always encouraged me to work, but they put school as a priority over working and time with friends. They are really proud of me and my work ethic.”

Gov. Paul LePage wants more kids to follow Jackson’s lead.

With the lowest state unemployment rate in 60 years and many industries struggling to find workers, the Department of Labor plans to tap into thousands of potential teen job-seekers with a public campaign to build the state’s underage workforce. The program includes training for businesses, outreach to schools and parents, a website and assistance connecting teens with employers.

“We are in a labor crunch. We need to have every group of people who are in Maine to be in the workforce – it is all hands on deck,” Labor Commissioner John Butera said in an interview. “We have a lot of kids here, youth, young adults we can start engaging in the workforce, and the sooner the better.”

Since his first year in office, the LePage administration has pushed to loosen Maine’s child labor laws and this session advocated for legislation to allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work for their family without a work permit. In an April radio address, LePage suggested eliminating permits for kids under 16 during the summer. Under Maine law, kids under 14 are not allowed to work paid jobs except on farms. Minors under age 16 who want to get a job need a permit signed by their school superintendent that shows they go to class and get passing grades.

Morgan Jackson, a senior at Scarborough High School, studies for an exam during a slow moment at work at Beals Ice Cream in Portland on April 26. Other employers didn’t want to hire her because she couldn’t work late evenings and she wanted weekend shifts, she said. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Labor advocates warn that employing more teens puts them at risk of exploitation and runs against longstanding policy of prioritizing education over work.

“I think the LePage administration was very clear from day one they were trying to gut Maine’s child labor laws,” said Matt Schlobohm, executive director of Maine AFL-CIO, the state’s organized labor organization.

Though some of the law changes have been positive, Schlobohm acknowledged, unions and others on the left have helped defeat other child labor proposals pushed by Le- Page, including a sub-minimum wage for young workers as low as $7.25 an hour, Schlobohm added.

“I think the larger issue here is for the LePage administration and certain corporate interests, there is a strategy to seek out cheap labor and find a workforce by rolling back child labor laws,” he said.

The number of Maine teens with jobs has steadily declined in the past two decades. In 2000, 50 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds – about 33,000 workers – were employed. By 2014, the number of teens with jobs dropped to 22,000, about 39 percent of that age group, according to Department of Labor statistics.

The number of working 14- and 15-year-olds has been rising since LePage took office. In 2017, teens applied for 4,261 work permits, a 54 percent increase from 2011. Administration officials credit the governor’s pro-employment policies for the rise applications.

Butera believes at least 20,000 young teens in Maine are ready to work. Beyond filling labor gaps, a paid job teaches responsibility and work ethic kids can build on through their careers, Butera said.

“I grew up in a generation where at 14 or 16 you were out there earning a paycheck,” he said. “I was always working, going to school and getting good grades.”

He added: “If you ask employers, the new generation coming up, they don’t have the same work experience, work ethic, work history that they had when they were younger.”

CHANGING THE LAW

Maine lawmakers passed a measure last year that allowed 14- and 15-year-olds to work in previously prohibited positions, like hotel restaurant workers and front-end workers at bakeries, among other jobs, ; simplified the teen work permit process; and let teenagers with vocational training work in hazardous industries.

Maine’s tourism and hospitality industry welcomes the changes, expecting a new source of labor at a time it is struggling to fill seasonal jobs. “We are excited the Legislature is easing restrictions around younger workers,” said Chris Fogg, president and CEO of the Maine Tourism Association. The association in April launched a series of advertisements to lure workers to tourism and hospitality careers.

“We want to have kids stay here and flourish,” Fogg said. Tourism is associated with low-paying, entry-level jobs, but there are opportunities to earn a good living, he added.

“The industry keeps growing; it is not sustainable if we don’t have the people to fill the jobs in it.”

RISK VERSUS REWARD

It is tempting to think thousands of high schoolers are ready to earn a paycheck, but bringing children into the workforce presents the potential for abuse, said Stacey Neumann, an attorney with Murray, Plumb & Murray in Portland who specializes in labor issues.

“Children are less likely to understand their legal rights and safety issues as well as older people might. And they are certainly less likely to complain, even if they felt something was dangerous or unfair,” Neumann said.

Since 2016, the Department of Labor has found 163 violations of child labor laws and fined business almost $29,500.

Hiring teens also risks taking jobs away from adults who need them, said Marc Cryer, director of the Bureau of Labor Studies at the University of Maine.

“There simply aren’t that many good full-time jobs in rural Maine, and it would be very important to look at the effects of increasing employment for minors on safety and the working hours of adults,” Cryer said.

Training for future jobs and teaching work ethic are laudable goals, but promoting teen employment is contrary to policies in most advanced countries that prioritize education over paid work, he added.

“Hour per hour, the value of education in dollars over the lifetime of the average American is much higher than the value gained by extra years of work,” prior to becoming a legal adult, Cryer said. “The best policy would clearly be to emphasize education over work.”

Morgan Jackson works the counter at Beal’s ice cream shop in Portland last month. Suzanne Foley-Ferguson, who owns four Beal’s shops in the Portland area, said she pays her teenage employees higher wages as they learn and take on more responsibility. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

WORKPLACE WORRIES

About a third of the seasonal workforce at Funtown Splashtown USA are local teenagers, said Ed Hodgdon, the Saco amusement park’s marketing manager.

“To be able to fill 500 or more seasonal positions every year, you have to have a workforce that is flexible and looking for seasonal employment,” Hodgdon said. “They are vitally important. To hire younger workers, businesses must be willing to schedule around sports, extracurricular activities and family vacations.

“If you are going to hire kids you have to expect those things,” he said.

The paperwork and supervision teen workers need and their restrictive work hours makes them unattractive employees for some businesses. When school is in session, kids younger than 16 can work only three hours on weekdays or 18 hours a week and not past 7 p.m. In the summer, 14- and 15-year-olds can work 40 hours a week, but no later than 9 p.m. Older teens, 16- and 17-year-olds, can work six hours a day and 24 hours a week when school is in session and stay at work until 10:15 p.m.

Jackson said she tried to get hired at a retail store and coffee shop before starting at Beal’s two years ago. Other employers didn’t want to hire her because she couldn’t work late evenings and she wanted weekend shifts, she said.

“I think that is the struggle,” Jackson said. “You have to go somewhere that is specifically hiring for the weekend or after school hours.”

Business say higher pay has emerged as another barrier to hiring young workers.

Funtown Splashtown is among many businesses that say the rising state minimum wage – up to $12 an hour in 2020 – makes it harder for them to hire teens. It is hard to justify paying kids as young as 14 who live at home the same as adults, Hodgdon said.

“We are all for a living wage, but when you have to supply that for someone who is not supporting themselves, that is a tough nut to crack,” Hodgdon said.

Hodgdon and others support a “training wage” that would allow employers to pay workers under age 18 at 80 percent of the minimum wage for the first 200 hours of work. Suzanne Foley-Ferguson, who owns four Beal’s locations in the Portland area, said she stopped hiring teens younger than 16 when Portland’s minimum wage went up to $10.68 an hour unless she personally knew their family.

Three-quarters of her workers are teens, and Foley-Ferguson said she enjoys hiring kids and paying them higher wages as they learn and take on more responsibility. A higher minimum wage removes that incentive, she said.

“When you hire at 14, you have to have a lot of patience and a willingness to repeat, repeat, repeat,” Foley-Ferguson said.

“In the past, I was patient and more willing to take people under my wing who had less experience. When you start paying them a higher amount of money, it is almost like you can’t do that.”

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PeteL_McGuire

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