Teen unemployment in Wisconsin, which hovers around 19%, may drop now that the state has eased restrictions on the hours per day, and days per week, that minors can work.
One of the arguments made by the Wisconsin Grocers Association, which supported changing the state's child labor laws, was that the new rules would allow teens to better compete with adults for jobs.
But Reid Maki, coordinator for the Washington, D.C.-based Child Labor Coalition, says that argument is ridiculous. "If teens and adults are competing for the same jobs, isn't it better for the adults to work?" he asks. "These changes are really concerning and misguided. Can't we just allow kids to focus on their education?"
Maki notes that Wisconsin is the third state to roll back its child labor laws, the others being Missouri and Maine.
The provision, inserted into the budget bill by the Joint Finance Committee without a public hearing, lifts many restrictions on when minors can work during the school year.
"There are multiple factors that impact teen unemployment in Wisconsin," says Brandon Scholz, president of the Wisconsin Grocers Association. "Streamlining the bureaucratic conflicts between state and federal law is a step."
Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) questions the changes. "I don't know where the big push came from," he says.
Isthmus called several area employers to see how they might make use of the new child labor rules. None were aware that the laws had changed, but said that the changes probably won't affect how they do business.
Carlo Petrick, communications director for the Milwaukee-based Marcus Theatres, which has two theaters in Madison, says he hasn't heard anything about the new law. Marcus Theatres was one of three movie theater companies in Wisconsin fined by the U.S. Department of Labor earlier this year for child labor violations.
Maki finds Wisconsin's new law troubling. Though it may reduce teen unemployment, he says, studies show teens who work more than 20 hours a week while school is in session often see a drop in grades and are more accident-prone.
"Kids do get hurt at work, even in grocery stores," he says.
Furthermore, Maki says, employers are now in a position to pressure teens to work more and, effectively, study less.
And if teens resist? "An employer can then find teens who are less concerned about their studies," Maki says.
Though the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families spoke out against the law before it was passed, spokesman Bob Jacobson declined to anticipate what impact the bill might have over the long term. "We have not had a chance to thoroughly examine this bill," he says.
Vivian King, spokeswoman for Roundy's Supermarkets Inc. - owner of Copps grocery stores - says she doesn't expect the company to make much use of the new law but declined to elaborate.
Maki says it's nice to hear employers say they'll maintain the status quo. "Unfortunately," he says. "it's the law that often sets the status quo."