LACONIA — A House committee has removed two controversial elements from legislation that would increase the hours teenagers are permitted to work and reduce the Labor Department’s ability to independently investigate businesses.
Sen. Howard French, R-Franklin, said he proposed Senate Bill 318 based on requests from Lakes Region hotels and restaurants for greater flexibility in scheduling 16- and 17-year-old workers. Many young people work for these businesses, particularly during the summer tourist season.
There are no federal rules restricting the hours 16- and 17-year-olds can work, but state law limits the hours to 30 during the school week and 48 on school vacations and summer break.
The bill called for this to increase to 40 and one-quarter hours in a four-day school week, such as a holiday weekend. In weeks in which there are fewer than four school days, they could work 48 hours. On long breaks and summer vacation, they would be able to work up to 56 hours.
The two most controversial portions of the bill were the 56-hour cap and a provision that permitted Labor Department visits to a business only if a complaint had been lodged and there was other information to substantiate a violation had taken place.
The legislation passed the Senate, 11-10, and was assigned to the House Labor Committee, which amended the bill to remove these two controversial portions.
Rep. Keith Murphy, R-Bedford, a restaurateur, co-authored the amendment.
“I talked with employers,” he said. “They wouldn’t give anybody 56 hours anyway. I felt like it was not something worth going to war about.”
The bill states that Labor Department investigations shall be “proportional and relative to the potential violations being inspected.” Murphy said the goal is to preclude “fishing expeditions,” where investigators can launch overly intrusive probes based only on a minor infraction.
“In most cases, the bill would put into law what is already standard practice,” Murphy said.
The House committee voted, 11-9, to send the bill to the floor as amended and with a recommendation that it ought to pass. If it does pass, the House and the Senate would have to reconcile differences between the two versions of the bill.
French, whose district includes Laconia, said that the legislation is aimed at removing ambiguity in current laws and that the Labor Department “was on board with most of it.”
He said he’s not optimistic for its chances in the House. He said he’s been surprised with some of the pushback the legislation has received.
“With the opiate crisis we have going on today, to not allow these kids to do something productive, to learn a trade or earn money is ridiculous,” he said. “They are allowed unlimited time to play sports, so why not allow them to work as much as they choose to do.”
He worked long hours in his youth.
“I earned $2 an hour for 60-plus hours of work milking cows and felt I was overpaid at that time,” he said. “I bought a vehicle and paid my own insurance at age 16.”
Jason Rathbun, managing operator at T-Bones and Cactus Jack’s in Laconia, said 16- and 17-year-old employees typically bus tables four or five hours a night and don’t accumulate more than 30 hours. Still, he supports the bill.
“Overall, I think it’s a positive,” he said. “Anything that gives more flexibility for the workforce is good.”
Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, said the impetus for the legislation is the tight labor market.
“But the solution is not making children work more. We should be concentrating on job training and workforce initiatives,” Feltes said. “Give them the skills they need to fill available positions.”
Rep. Charlie St. Clair, D-Laconia, said he hasn’t heard much comment from his constituents on the bill, but said he doesn’t have a problem with the legislation.
“There’s something to be said for having a good work ethic at a young age,” he said. “It also gives them something to do. People with a lack of things to do don’t always end up doing good things.”