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OVERHAUL TO TOUGHEN STATE CHILD LABOR LAWS AG WOULD GET MORE ENFORCEMENT POWER
The Boston Globe (Boston, MA) July 20, 2006 | Diane E. Lewis, Globe Staff The Massachusetts Legislature is set to tighten child labor laws this month, the first comprehensive overhaul of the rules to protect working youths in 70 years. childlaborlawsnow.com child labor laws
Currently, the state’s child labor laws call for a maximum fine of just $50 for a first offense by an employer, and a month in jail. Subsequent offenses carry a fine of up to $200 per violation, with two months’ incarceration.
Violators may face criminal prosecution, but workplace advocates say such cases take years to resolve because of backlogged courts and the difficulties associated with proving criminal intent. And Massachusetts workers’ compensation laws bar employees and their families from pursuing civil damages against employers after a workplace injury. Rather, they must petition for lost wages.
A bill sponsored by State Senator Patricia Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat, and Representative Michael Rodrigues, Democrat of Bristol County and chairman of the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, could change that.
The bill, which passed conference committee last week, would increase criminal penalties and, for the first time, permit the attorney general to pursue civil charges. Negligent employers could be fined up to $250 for the first civil offense and up to $2,500 for each claim thereafter. The maximum criminal penalty for a first offense would be $500, and up to $5,000 for each additional offense.
Both chambers are expected to approve the bill before adjourning this month, according to the cosponsors.
“We really do not see any significant opposition,” said Jehlen. “We also think Governor Romney will sign it. We think he will want to be on record as caring about kids’ safety at work.” Felix Browne, an aide to the governor, said Romney has not seen the final bill. “If the Legislature enacts it, the governor will review it,” he said.
Except for two amendments that loosened protections, the state’s child labor laws have not changed significantly since they were adopted in the 1930s, said Jehlen. A 1991 amendment struck down a provision that had barred 14- and 15-year-olds from pumping gas because of concerns about gas fumes and the risk of being hit by a car. The law was amended again in 2003 to let teens under 18 operate golf carts if they have drivers’ licenses.
The new measure was crafted with the help of a group of teens who wanted to bring the laws into the 21st century. Members of Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety Health’s youth division testified in support of the bill and advised lawmakers on possible changes. “We need safer environments to work,” said Veronica Monteiro, 17, of Dorchester. “Teens aren’t getting the supervision they need.” Under the bill, adult supervision of younger workers would be required after 8 p.m. It also summarizes the statute on the back of work permits and permit applications, limits the hours children employed by the entertainment industry can work, and bars teens from carrying a firearm at work.
“During the Depression, no one envisioned that a youngster might be working as a security guard and could be armed,” said Jehlen. “Life has changed quite a bit.” Jehlen said the most important provision gives the attorney general civil enforcement powers that “will make employers take the laws more seriously.” Data compiled by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health show that close to 600 Massachusetts teenagers between 14 and 17 are injured at work yearly. Nationwide, 70,000 US teens are injured on the job annually.
One area the bill does not address: the need for more workplace safety inspectors.
Rick Grundy, chief of the Fair Labor division at the state attorney general’s office, said that over the past two years the office has sought $240,000 to $360,000 to hire four to six inspectors, but the request was not approved. “If we had more investigators, we would have more people doing drop by visits and inspections.” he said.
“We received 67,000 calls from our hotline last year concerning all types of workplace problems, from nonpayment of wages to child labor,” said Grundy . Grundy has 22 inspectors who handled 1,820 official cases last year, more than 80 per inspector.
Nancy Lessin, health and safety coordinator for the state AFL- CIO, acknowledged that there are not enough inspectors, but says the bill requires that parents and teens are made aware of existing dangers. in our site child labor laws
“This bill requires that teens, parents and employers sign the work permit application indicating that they have all read and understand the law summarized on the back,” said Lessin. “This means that if you do not have enough inspectors, you have the added eyes or ears of young workers and their parents.” The state AFL-CIO and other workplace advocates back the measure despite a provision that would exempt restaurants and racetracks from an 11:30 p.m. time limit on nonschool nights.
Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety Health in Dorchester, said her organization focused on getting civil sanctions and “putting teeth into the law.” “We were also very concerned about teenagers working alone at night when they are most vulnerable,” said Goldstein-Gelb. “The notion that a young person could be alone at night while counting money and closing a store is astonishing.” Massachusetts reported only 11 fatalities among teens between 1993 and 2004; the federal government tallied 134 deaths of working teens nationwide in 2004 alone, according to the Labor Department, which reports that most teen injuries occur in industries involving physical labor, construction, freight, or agriculture.
Diane E. Lewis can be reached at email@example.com.
SIDEBAR:OCCUPATIONAL INJURIES TO MASSACHUSETTS TEENSPLEASE REFER TO MICROFILM FOR CHART DATA.
Diane E. Lewis, Globe Staff