Blatantly allow businesses to take advantage of a powerless group of people.
That’s what LD 1346, “An Act to Enhance Access to the Workplace for Minors” would do.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, would allow companies to pay people (and they are people, last time I checked) under the age of 20 less than minimum wage for the first 180 days of their employment.
It also eliminates the hour limitations school-age students can work while school is in session, meaning an employer could require a student to work as much as that employer liked, whether school’s in session or not.
I started working when I was 16. I lived on my own for the summer between my junior and senior years in high school. I had my own car, checking account, went grocery shopping myself. I was, for all intents and purposes, an adult. At least I thought I was. (what 16-year-old doesn’t, right?)
I worked full time for a hotel in town and I was totally thrilled to be making more than minimum wage ($6.50 and hour!). I also worked for a bagel store baking and selling bagels. Also full time. There, I made minimum wage: $5.25 per hour.
There are any number of reasons kids work. For me, it was about saving money for college and asserting my independence. I wanted desperately to be an adult and prove I could support myself.
But it was hard. It was really, really hard. I worked around 80 hours a week, managed to save about $1,000 and spent the rest on food, gas, and a (super sweet) duel tape-deck/CD boom box.
I find it difficult to understand how my hard work (for a barely livable wage) would be worth less than someone doing the exact same thing who is four years older than me. Was I $2.25 an hour less of a person because I was 16? Was my time slinging bagels really worth 30 percent less than someone who was technically an adult?
I don’t think so. And the thousands of other young workers all over Maine who work because they have to, because they want to, because they love to, are 100 percent people. Not 70 percent. They should be respected and treated as such.
If the bagel store had been able to get away with paying me $3 an hour, they would have. The place was already borderline abusive, scheduling its employees to work split shifts for no reason, hiring only pretty girls between the ages of 15 and 17, keeping the back room above 120 degrees (because the oven door was always open) and making you pay for any underages (even a penny) in your till at the end of the day. The creepy boss even tried to get me to go home with him to “see his killer sound system.”
Despite hating the job, hating my boss and being stressed about money all the time, I worked at that bagel shop through the entire summer. Why? Because, like so many young workers, I had no choice. I was 16 and had no experience. No one wanted to hire me. I had to take what I could get, even if it was horrible.
On the other hand, the hotel where I worked, my boss was respectful and kind, giving me way more responsibility than I probably deserved, and paying me more than minimum wage. I worked for him for three summers.
The bagel place went out of business.
Because it’s not good business to abuse your employees. But that doesn’t stop it from happening. The only way we can protect our kids from this is to actually protect them with a state law. Eroding that law not only makes this powerless group even more powerless, it also empowers companies to take advantage even more, of young workers who don’t know any better, or can’t protest.
Young workers grow up to be adult workers. Allowing them to be taken advantage of as they start their careers reinforces a system of us versus them, workers versus companies, that does no one any good.
If you hate where you work, you won’t work as hard. If you don’t trust your employer, you’re less likely to take risks with your work and therefore, less likely to innovate.
And in this economy, isn’t innovation what we so desperately need?