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Unions: plan to relax child labor laws may undercut minimum wage

A Labor Department proposal to give Johnny and Susie more opportunities to get into the work force is the most recent administration-backed move to anger organized labor.

''I would not have thought that even this administration would do this,'' AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland said, as unions threw their support behind a congressional effort to block proposals that would permit children 14- and 15 -years-old to work later hours and to hold a wider range of jobs.

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The proposals, announced recently by Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan, are intended to ''improve the employment opportunities of young workers without harming their health, well-being, or opportunity for schooling,'' said Labor Department spokesman William Otter.

Labor union opposition, expressed at a hearing of a House Labor Standards subcommittee July 28, is based primarily on fears that relaxed restrictions on child labor laws would ''create a kiddie work force'' that could undermine minimum wage rates for youths 16 and older.

Kirkland said the move to ''junk child work curbs would be a social outrage'' at any time - but is more so now while there is ''record unemployment with disastrously high rates for those between 16 and 18.''

''At a time when their older brothers and sisters cannot find work, it is preposterous to lower the working rules for school-age youngsters,'' Kirkland said.

At the subcommittee hearing, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Thomas R. Donahue charged that the child labor proposal is, in effect, a ''backdoor attempt'' to slip through a youth sub-minimum wage which the administration could not get through Congress.

Rep. George Miller (D) of California, subcommittee chairman, says he is ''outraged by the insensitivity and stupidity of these proposals.'' He and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts have introduced a joint congressional resolution to block changes. They claim substantial support in both chambers.

The proposed new rules would make it easier for employers to pay full-time students 85 percent of the $3.35 an hour minimum wage ($2.85) and extend their work schedules to 9 p.m. on school nights and 10 p.m. on weekends and holidays (up from 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.). The youths could work more hours each week and would be eligible for jobs in cooking and baking, switchboard and teletypewriter openings, data processing equipment operations, and certain types of laundry, drycleaning, service station, warehouse, and truck and bus maintenance work.

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The proposals, published in the Federal Register, would not relax prohibitions against hazardous jobs involving power-driven machinery, explosive or radioactive material, dangerous tools, or dangerous locations.

The Labor Department says only ''safe jobs'' would be affected.

Retail and service industries, which already hire many 14- and 15-year-olds, are expected to hire many more, particularly in fast-food establishments, if rules are relaxed. However, supporters ''doubt'' any adults would lose jobs to the 14- and 15-year-olds.

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