Child-labor twist: Town favors kids working

In ski-resort towns like this one, worker shortages are a perennial problem. But two years ago, Village Market manager Jim Schrock hit upon a way to fill long-vacant positions for grocery baggers: He hired local children to work after school and on weekends.

It seemed a perfect solution. The children, ranging in age from 9 to 14, loved the job - and earned $7 per hour, plus tips. Parents were thrilled to see the children developing a work ethic, and the bustling market was fully staffed.

But there was one snag: It's illegal to employ children under 14. Last month, after a community member told Mr. Schrock he was violating child-labor laws, he let the youngsters go.

Far from ending there, however, the issue has touched off a wave of controversy here in the Roaring Fork Valley, centering on whether existing child-labor laws are appropriate. The issue carries particular significance in today's labor-scarce economy. With unemployment about to slip below 4 percent, opportunities for minors abound, many with above-minimum-wage pay. But a nine-year-old bagging groceries calls up images of 19th-century chimney sweeps for many who believe that a sense of responsibility is better learned at school, and that the extra cash comes at too high a cost.

As businesses struggle to fill positions, experts say the incidence of illegal child labor could rise. "Employers are looking for whomever they can get," says Doug Kruse, a professor of human resources at Rutgers University School of Management, in New Brunswick, N.J.

Child-labor laws were enacted early in the 20th century to protect youths from being exploited in sweatshop operations. Although there are limited exceptions, such as lawn care, baby-sitting, and farm work, children cannot work until they are 14. Until age 16, teens are restricted to no more than 12 hours a week during the school year.

It's unclear how many youths are employed in violation of child-labor laws, which are enforced on a complaint-only basis. But in 1998, about 148,000 minors were illegally employed in an average week, Mr. Kruse found.

For Kruse and others, that's cause for alarm. Youth employment is associated with a lower incidence of completing high school and going to college. "It raises strong concerns about the safety of children, and how it's going to affect their education and future prospects," he says.

But in Snowmass, a town of 1,400 just a few miles outside of Aspen, child-labor laws are being criticized by everyone from parents - who were delighted by their children's growing sense of responsibility - to the youths who lost their jobs.

"We were making good wages, and having fun there," says Joey Stokes, a sixth-grader who'd been saving his earnings. "The law is wrong, and we should change it."

Even the local mayor calls the laws archaic and unfair to kids.

But experts say that although times have changed, our priorities for children shouldn't. "The laws were intended so that education would come first, and jobs afterward," says Chester Burry, an officer for the Colorado Department of Labor, in Denver.

However, some say a moderate amount of work can be good for kids. "I think it teaches you responsibility," says Patricia Adler, a sociologist at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Part-time jobs like baby-sitting and yard-work are a good place to start. Also, she believes children mature at a younger age today and can handle more responsibility.

"We're seeing a gradual progression of children being more socially mature and sophisticated at a younger age. Children are exposed to a lot more than they were 50 years ago," says Ms. Adler. "There's a lot more to learn today, and you have to get an early start."

But studies show that working too hard during the school year can have negative impacts on 16- and 17-year-olds, never mind 12-year-olds, experts point out.

"Among the great advancements of modern times is the recognition of childhood as a separate phase of life," says Ellen Kelman, a labor lawyer and mother of three. "Kids don't need the drudgery and pressures of employment. They should be kids."

Treating them as children doesn't mean dispensing with expectations. "Going to school is plenty of responsibility. They learn discipline from home chores, things like emptying the dishwasher and picking up their own stuff."

As for the challenges employers face in finding low-wage workers, "that's supply and demand," says Ms. Kelman. "The solution in America is that you pay more money."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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