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Labor takes issue with lower summer wage for teens

By Ed TownsendSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 18, 1984



The Reagan administration is running head-on into a confrontation with organized labor by proposing a summertime reduction of the legal minimum wage for teen-agers.

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Under legislation introduced in Congress May 17, employers would be able to hire young temporary workers for $2.50 an hour instead of the current $3.35 -an-hour minimum for everyone.

The goal of bills introduced by Sen. Charles Percy (R) of Illinois and Rep. Ronald Packard (R) of California is to create 400,000 new jobs for young people between May 1 and Sept. 30 as a direct attack on the current unemployment rate of 44.8 percent for black teen-agers and 19.4 percent for all teen-agers.

Organized labor quickly opposed the Percy-Packard Youth Employment Opportunity Work Act, charging that it would hurt older workers. Unions have consistently used this argument to fight proposals for a subminimum rate for the young.

Murray Finley, president of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers, and Coretta Scott King, widow of the slain civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, issued a joint statement opposing the measure.

They said the subminimum would ''penalize disadvantaged persons who struggle to make ends meet even at the current minimum wage and set a dangerous precedent by violating the principles of equal pay for equal work.''

While labor says lowering the minimum wage for teen-agers for a six-month period could take jobs away from unskilled adults, sponsors of the Senate and House bills say employers would hardly be likely to employ the young to save money for only a few months and then hire adults as replacements in October. The reduced wage would be effective only through Sept. 13.

Although labor will fight the proposal, and could delay action in Congress until a subminimum rate would be too late for this summer, a number of minority groups are for it, some with reservations. The National Conference of Black Mayors has endorsed the Percy-Packard bill.

The Rev. Leon Sullivan of Philadelphia, a tireless worker for minority-job opportunities, and the American GI Forum, a Hispanic group, have endorsed the reduced wage as a way to ease acute summer unemployment among teen-agers.

James G. O'Hara, chairman of Congress's Minimum Wage Study Commission, sees little chance that the legislation will be passed.

If the subminimum should go into effect, teen-agers could be hired at $100 for a 40-hour week before taxes and other deductions, compared with $134 now. Many teen-agers who expect to have summer jobs at the present higher figure are concerned that a reduced wage would cut savings for rising college costs.