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Penny-Pinching on Teen-Agers

QUESTION: How long does it take to learn to flip a hamburger, sweep a floor, or punch a cash register? A day? A week? A month? Two months?

Answer: Two months, if a subminimum training wage becomes part of a minimum-wage bill to be considered in the Senate this month. Newly hired workers with no previous employment would be paid $3.35 an hour for the first two months - half a dollar less than the proposed new hourly minimum of $3.85.

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Supporters of the lower training wage claim the plan would limit the number of jobs lost for young entry-level workers. Opponents counter that the subminimum would be discriminatory. They also fear it could lead to ``churning,'' a process of deliberately creating high turnover to avoid paying employees the regular minimum wage.

Jeffrey Newman, executive director of the National Child Labor Committee in New York, calls the training wage ``absurd,'' saying, ``Only when the job itself is tied in formally with an educational experience could you justify a training wage.''

Without such educational training, he argues, a subminimum pay scale ``is just a way for employers to make more money on the backs of kids. It's another way for kids to learn that in the world of work, the employer takes and you give. It says, `We'll get anything we can out of you. All you mean to us is a little extra profit.'''

Even that ``little extra profit'' could prove ``self-destructive'' for employers, Mr. Newman adds, because ``they'll get what they pay for. Employees will be unhappy, and turnover will be great.''

Ellen Greenberger and Laurence Steinberg, authors of ``When Teen-agers Work,'' see other disadvantages. Lower wages, they point out, would require teen-agers to work more hours for the same amount of money. Based on their research, the authors conclude that ``any policy that would increase the number of hours youngsters work would exacerbate already existing problems in the schooling, family life, and social activities of American adolescents.''

For another group of entry-level workers - impoverished youths - reduced wages could heighten a sense of despair. A government study released two weeks ago already shows a widening gap between the nation's rich and poor. From 1979 to 1987, personal income for those in the richest one-fifth of the population rose 15 percent, while it declined 10 percent for those in the poorest one-fifth.

``Fairness'' is a word currently in vogue in Washington. But is it fair for businesses to want it both ways with teen-agers - courting them as customers while appearing to undercut them as employees? For instance, fast-food chains claim a training wage is necessary. At the same time, they derive a considerable share of their profits from teen-age consumers of burgers and fries.

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Similarly, a bank in Boston has been running large ads to promote a booklet, ``How to Raise Moneywise Teens.'' Noting the ``unprecedented spending power'' of high school students - $52 billion in 1986, according to the Rand Youth Poll - the bank, obviously eager to sign up young customers, advises:

``High school is a good time to introduce your children to concepts such as budgeting and to financial tools such as automated teller machines, savings accounts, and checking accounts.''

Besides the contrasting treatment of teen-agers as workers and teen-agers as consumers, there is another abuse of the double standard in penny-pinching on a minimum wage. During the past decade, the concept of equal pay for equal work has been gaining ground, legally and morally. Providing a training wage, which in many cases would amount to unequal pay for equal work, could subtly undermine efforts to eliminate inequities.

In this still-flourishing economy, is there any acceptable reason that the people at the bottom should not receive their first modest raise since 1981? - especially if we hope to build a stable, well-motivated work force to keep us competitive in an ever more competitive world.

Americans are fond of paying lip service to youth as ``our most precious resource.'' If young workers, as we also keep saying, are an ``investment in the future,'' let's put five dimes an hour where our mouth is.

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