Donovan and Dickens

In proposing to expand the hours and categories of jobs for teen-agers of 14 and 15, Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan said the department's rationale was to ''increase job opportunities'' for young persons. Unfortunately, however, the proposals would do little to increase job opportunities not only for these youngsters - but also for those youths most needing them. That means teen-agers between 16 and 18, for whom unemployment is particularly severe. The proposals also run counter to the concerns of many educators that school-age teen-agers are not devoting enough time to homework.

The proposals would go into effect later this year after a 30-day period of public comment and would be revisions to regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. In a sense, critics of the proposals have exaggerated their import. AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, for example, argues that the proposals prove that ''the spirit of Charles Dickens is alive and well in the Labor Department.'' Dickens paints a grim picture of child labor practices in his 19th-century novels.

The changes, however, would not alter current prohibitions regarding hazardous jobs. But they would open up many additional jobs to 14- and 15- year-olds, such as washing exteriors of buses and trucks, cooking, baking, and operating switchboards. Given the fact that many of today's young people learn about computers from their earliest years in school, not to mention cooking and cars, access to such jobs seems reasonable.

What is more questionable, however, is the issue of expanded hours. Youngsters of 14 and 15 would be allowed to work until 9 o'clock on nights before school, and until 10 o'clock before nonschool days and during summer vacations. Currently, they can work only until 7 o'clock on a night before school and 9 o'clock on other nights.

Letting younger teen-agers work more (and later) hours will hardly open additional jobs as the Labor Department contends. Rather, it would likely just keep youths now holding jobs working for longer periods of time.

But that in itself would be to the disadvantage of teen-agers of 16 and older who are most needing work - and who are more able to work such late hours. The new rules, it should be recalled, are geared to 14- and 15- year-olds. Such young people surely have a right to earn pocket money for a few hours a day if they so choose. But there is a need for hitting those schoolbooks at night - and just having some quiet time before the next day's classwork. For all these reasons, the proposed new rules pertaining to expanded hours should be either revised or scrapped.

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