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Bill Would Overturn Teen Work Restrictions

A showdown is brewing in Olympia over teen work rules that Republicans say allow state agencies to intrude on family life.

Familes, not the government, should decide the hours kids can work after school, critics say. At issue is a rule handed down two years ago by the state Department of Labor and Industries that restricts teen work hours.

A bill to do away with those restrictions has strong support among Republican lawmakers.

It was introduced by Rep. Barbara Lisk, R-Zillah, and today is expected to clear the House Committee on Commerce and Labor, which she chairs.

Some Democrats argue Lisk’s bill favors business over the welfare of children.

“The child labor laws were not set up for the convenience of fast-food places,” said Rep. Grace Cole, D-Seattle.

But Lisk said it was complaints from teens that put her to work on rolling back the restrictions.

“I get stopped at grocery stores and at ball games by teenagers who say, ‘Look, I can’t get a job,”’ she said.

That’s because many business owners say they no longer hire anyone under the age of 18 as a result of the rules.

At a public hearing Wednesday, owners and lobbyists for ski areas, fast-food chains, movie theaters and other businesses showered the House committee with complaints about the restrictions.

The rules allow 16- and 17-yearolds to work up to 20 hours a week, in shifts of no more than six hours during the school year. They may work up to 28 hours a week if they get paperwork signed by school officials and parents. If they want to work more than 28 hours a week, they must obtain special permits from the Department of Labor and Industries.

Another rule prevents 16- and 17-year-olds from working past 10 p.m. on school nights.

Mark Ray, who owns several Spokane-area McDonald’s restaurants, said Wednesday that ever since the rules were “shoved down everyone’s throats,” his restaurants rarely hire anyone under 18.

Ray said he sees the need for some restrictions on teen work hours - adding that even before the rules, McDonald’s was careful not to schedule teenagers for too many hours during the school week. But the agency went too far with the current restrictions, he said.

Karisa Legg, a senior at Central Valley High School, said she would like to be able to work more hours at BEST Products Co. She doesn’t like a government agency stopping her.

“I don’t think they should be able to make that decision. It should be left up to the parents,” Legg said. She said teens can juggle work and school without going down the tubes academically.

But Larry Bernbaum, a counselor at Central Valley for the past six years, favors the current limits on teen workers.

Kids have a hard time seeing the long-term benefits of school over the money that a job might put in their pockets, Bernbaum said. Those who work long shifts often do not have time to complete homework. They also fall asleep in class, or don’t show up.

“We even have parents who say, ‘He came home from work so late last night I didn’t have the heart to wake him,”’ Bernbaum said.

The bill to overturn the teen work restrictions fits in with the general push to fight what Republicans see as government run amok. Some are watching Lisk’s bill as an early test of how successful that agenda will prove.

“This is probably one of the most glaring instances where a department overstepped its bounds,” said Rep. Todd Mielke, R-Spokane.

Gov. Mike Lowry stands by the teen work rules.

“Kids should be in school,” he told reporters last week.

Labor and Industries officials say their research shows that very few businesses have been harmed by the teen work rules.

In a random survey of state businesses, only 15 percent reported a negative impact as a result of the rules, according to Suzanne Mager, special assistant to the director of L&I.; She conceded, however, that many of the businesses in the survey never hired teen workers in the first place.