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Work at home: byte and purl

One issue hanging fire in Washington until after next month's elections: Is it legal to do certain kinds of work at home? On the surface the tussle is over familiar ground: the knitting of outerwear - hats, scarfs, and the like.

But a broader issue has yet to surface fully. It involves an emerging new technology: Will it be legal to do work at home using computers?

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As the electronic age matures, it will be technically possible for a new era of cottage industry to develop. Americans and others in the developed world would be able to perform many tasks, from writing to accounting, without ever leaving their homes.

They'd be able to work for large employers without needing to leave home to go to work. They could sit at computers in their dens and send the results of their efforts - what they write or figure - to their employers over the telephone, direct from their computers to their firm's.

If this scenario were to come about, labor unions would find it immensely difficult to organize these workers-at-home. Already beset by dramatically declining union rolls over the past decade, the labor movement is concerned about the prospect.

This concern, it is widely believed, underlies labor's fierce opposition to efforts by the Reagan administration to make it legal for people to knit outerwear now in their homes. Through such opposition, the view goes, labor may be trying to lay the legal groundwork now for challenging any widespread home use of computers for business purposes.

The Reagan administration has proposed making it legal for Americans to knit outerwear in their homes. The issue is on hold until after the election, when the Labor Department is expected to issue a ruling that it is legal.

Labor unions may challenge this in court, as they did a similar earlier edict. They held at that time that the potential exists for abuse of the minimum wage law, now $3.35 an hour, inasmuch as knitters - primarily women - are paid by the piece.

Another important objection is that such work and wages help to keep the wage structure for women low.

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The potential for abuse does exist, but the ruling should be allowed to become law. A person ought to be able to do work in his or her own home so long as it poses no health or safety threat to others.

Knitting outerwear provides considerable benefit to a sizable number of northern New Englanders - possibly a few thousand. It is practiced in other areas of the United States as well. Most who knit are women; for most of them, one attraction of knitting at home is that they are able to care for their families while working - an important benefit rarely mentioned. To some knitters it is a sole livelihood; to others it is an important addition to social security. Whereas they need considerable dexterity to operate the machine swiftly, it is possible for them to make more than the hourly minimum wage. Most persons who now make less do so because they either have not had sufficient training on the knitting machine, or they do not exhibit sufficient skill in working it.

The minimum-wage law can effectively be enforced by having government representatives check records that employers are required to keep of the number of items made by each knitter, the money paid, and the amount of time worked. From these statistics it can be figured whether each knitter is being paid the minimum wage.

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