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Fight Erupts Over Child-Labor Bill

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A political battle pitting Connecticut educators against the state's restaurateurs erupted last week when a House panel overwhelmingly approved legislation that would permit 15-year-olds to work in restaurants.

Groups representing teachers, school-board members, and administrators have lobbied heavily against the bill, arguing that it would lower student-attendance rates and academic performance. The state board of education also issued a statement this month urging the measure's defeat.

"What has been persuasive is that the entire state education coalition has come as a bloc, all saying exactly the same thing," said Representative Naomi Cohen, chairman of the House education committee and an opponent of the bill.

However, she noted, their appeal failed to sway a majority of her committee's members, who were convinced that the bill would be a boon to students.

"Everybody else thought that it would teach them skills, introduce them to the real world, and give them spending money," she said.

The bill, approved on a 22-to-9 vote, must be approved by two other committees before reaching the House floor.

The measure would broaden a law enacted last year that for the first time allowed 15-year-olds to work in retail establishments. That bill, which sailed through the General Assembly, was aimed at assisting businesses finding it difficult to attract workers to low-paying jobs because of the state's low unemployment rate.

Broadens 1987 Law

Spokesmen for education groups said they did not adopt a stance on that bill because their organizations were generally unaware of it.

Restaurants were excluded from the measure because "we felt we had to take it one step at a time," said Representative Joseph A. Adamo, chairman of the House labor committee.

But after that law was enacted, he noted, the restaurant industry launched a campaign to persuade legislators that it had been injured by the exclusion. Many restaurant owners have claimed that they are being forced to close early because they are short-staffed, Mr. Adamo said.

But as lawmakers began drafting the bill to include restaurants in the law, educators started to organize in opposition.

"They were talking about kids and learning," said Ms. Cohen. "What started out as a labor issue became an education issue."

The school groups argue that 15-year-olds who work would be unable to complete homework assignments on time, and would be too tired to pay attention in class.

"We were concerned about students' ability to focus on their primary occupation--schooling," said Terry P. Cassidy, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.

"There is a labor problem in Connecticut for restaurants," added Edward R. Dorsett, president of the Connecticut Education Association. ''But I don't believe the solution is to change the child-labor laws to put kids back to work."

Action in Other States

Controversies over the laws governing teen-agers' work status have arisen in several states in recent years, as more and more young people of school age join the workforce. According to one national estimate, two out of every three high-school students now hold part-time jobs. (See Education Week, May 20, 1987.)

The debate over whether such jobs teach self-reliance and the work ethic, or merely contribute to school problems, heated up after the publication in 1986 of a highly critical book on the subject--When Teenagers Work: The Psychological and Social Costs of Adolescent Employment.

The Florida legislature passed a law that year that limited both the number and the lateness of hours worked by adolescents. And complaints from educators in Minnesota and North Carolina led to similar legislative efforts last year.

'Strict Guidelines'

Sponsors of the Connecticut measure maintain that the bill would not harm the academic standing of 15-year-olds because of stringent restrictions on the amount of time that students could work.

The bill would limit work to after-school hours, to no more than 18 hours a week and three hours a day, and to no more than two consecutive days. It also would fine businesses that violated those restrictions.

"So long as we keep those strict guidelines, we won't be putting kids in jeopardy," said Mr. Adamo.

The education panel added tighter restrictions when it approved the measure. One amendment would limit 15-year-old restaurant employees to working on weekends and holidays and during vacations.

The bill now goes to the House general-law committee because it contains a provision that would relax liquor laws to enable 15-year-olds to work in establishments that serve alcohol. Without the provision, sponsors said, they would be restricted to work in fast-food restaurants.

But opponents vow to fight the liquor-law change. "I have grave concerns about letting 15-year-olds in bars," Representative Cohen said.

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