Grocery stores and other essential businesses that employ a large number of teenage workers have asked the state to relax the rules for work permits, since public schools are closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic and students are spending less time on academics.

But the answer from the Maine Department of Labor, so far, has been “no.”

Some lawmakers and parents would like the department to reconsider.

The agency issued a notice to employers last week that even though school buildings are closed, school is technically still in session and minors who hold state-issued work permits are still subject to both state and federal child labor laws and work-hour limits.

“We have been receiving inquiries about whether students can work increased hours,” said Jessica Picard, a spokeswoman for the department. “Especially since many minors work jobs that are essential, such as in grocery stores, we wanted to get the word out in order to prevent violations of labor laws from happening.”

There are approximately 3,082 active work permits in Maine, Picard said.

The law requires students to be at least 15 to work and even those employed in a family-owned business must obtain a permit. Teens under the age of 16 can work no more than three hours on a school day and those hours must be scheduled after 7 a.m. and before 7 p.m. when school is in session. They can work a maximum of 18 hours a week and cannot work more than six days in a row.

Youths aged 16 or 17 must also have a permit but can work a maximum of six hours on school days between 7 a.m. and 10:15 p.m. They can start as early as 5 a.m. and work until midnight on a non-school day but are limited to total of 24 hours a week and cannot work more than six  days in a row when school is in session.

The law provides exceptions for students on alternative education plans or approved vocational education programs.

When school is not in session, youths under 16 can work until 9 p.m. and up to 40 hours a week with a daily limit of eight hours. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds can work as late as midnight when school is not in session and up to 50 hours a week with a cap of 10 hours per day. Neither group can work more than six days in any week.

Some members of the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association have been asking whether teens could work more, since they are not in school physically and much of their distance learning from home is self-paced, said Christine Cummings, the association’s executive director.

Cummings said store operators are not clamoring for help but are facing workforce challenges because employees have been redirected to new tasks, such as limiting the number of in-store customers, additional sanitizing and increased restocking. Some have lost employees who have high-risk medical conditions or must stay at home to take care of children who are no longer in school.

Employers have been “trying to be as nimble as they can but are certainly feeling the pinch,” she said. “They are trying to find a balance in these unprecedented times and nobody wants to downplay or make education seem any less important.”

Some parents and lawmakers, however, would like the Labor Department to ease the restrictions to help student workers and the businesses they serve, partly because distance-learning structures and expectations vary widely among school districts.

“Many students are doing school-related work only two to three hours per day,” said state Sen. Matt Pouliot, a Republican from Augusta. “This new free time presents an opportunity to work at a local essential business, and learn valuable life skills from on-the-job training while doing so. The work hour requirements that apply to summer should be extended to this time to give students the ability to work at an essential business if they want to.”

Holly Bosse, an Auburn resident whose five children include two boys ages 16 and 18, says she believe her teens, who have work permits and are employed at a Hannaford supermarket, would benefit not only financially but also emotionally from being able to work more.

Bosse, a registered nurse, said her 16-year-old son is happier when he’s working, especially when there’s little else for him to do in the abundance of free time he now has on his hands. She said knowing he is also helping in a time of crisis can be a confidence-building experience for him as well.

“Being able to work has been helpful for their mental health,” she said. “It creates a lot more anxiety for kids when they are unable to see how they can help or how they can protect themselves in times like these.”

She said she wanted to encourage her children’s strong work ethic. Both help pay for bills related to their vehicles and spend some of their earnings feeding themselves, she said. Bosse said their family doesn’t depend on the her sons’ earnings but some of the teens they work with are in tougher financial situations at home and could likely benefit financially from additional hours.

Bosse praised Hannaford’s management for taking steps to keep its employees safe and said she has also made sure her sons are taking precautions.

Eric Blom, a spokesman for Hannaford, said the company recognizes that schools remain in session under remote learning, and has been following and enforcing all applicable work rules. He said Hannaford was not taking a position on whether the rules for young workers should be loosened.

“We are focused on supporting our associates, including our young associates, at this challenging time,” Blom said. “We are incredibly proud of them.”

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