In the past several weeks, there have been some controversial legislative proposals concerning child labor that have put Maine in the national spotlight. LD 516, sponsored by Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden, aims to increase the number of hours a teenager can work in a week from 20 to 24 (amended from an originally proposed 32 hours) and would also allow teens to work until 11 p.m. on a school night.

Another bill, LD 1346, sponsored by Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, establishes a “training wage” for “trainees,” including both minors and adults younger than 20 years of age, at $5.25 per hour ($2 below the minimum wage) for their first 180 days of employment. While the former bill certainly raises some concerns, the latter bill makes me wonder if certain members of the Legislature forget what it is like to be a young adult. My 18-year-old self would have been less political in his critique.

Growing up in the Midcoast, from a young age until college, I worked a number of jobs. From blueberry raking, babysitting and mowing lawns to washing dishes at a local restaurant, working for a caterer, and painting houses, I didn’t like to be without work when I could do it. From the moment I started raking blueberries in elementary school, my mother said it was time I started buying my own back-to-school clothes. Even after those late August spending sprees, I was able to save a considerable amount of money for the winter and even invested some of it for college.

However, my work as a child never interfered with my academic career. Those experiences instilled in me a strong work ethic and made me value a hard day’s work. As an adult, when I’ve been unable to find the employment I desired in a tough economy, I have never shied away from shoveling snow, mowing lawns or working on an assembly line.

My father, on the other hand, grew up in a different time with a much tougher economic background. While in high school, during the 1950s in Augusta, my grandparents became ill and my father took on a job to contribute to the financial stability of the family. During those next few years, he worked as a janitor in a dress shop making 50 cents an hour, worked a job working in a paint store for 60 cents an hour, and finally in his third year of high school he got his dream job working at the A&P Grocery for 75 cents an hour. By graduation he was making $1.10 an hour, working 35 hours a week.

“All of this success came at a price,” he said. “I finished in the lower 10 percent of my graduating class, never played organized baseball again, though I had played on all-star teams in Little League and in grade school, and never took part in any high school activities.”

As soon as he could, at age 17, he went into military service.

“Never in my high school working career did I have any employer ask how I was doing academically, or if I was involved in any high school activities,” he said. “I was providing a needed service for them and I was getting paid.”

Throughout Maine, children had similar experiences, and although some adults hold a romanticized view of this situation, the fact is that many of these children were deprived of well-rounded academic careers due to the time taken away from schooling.

Working as a tutor for English language learners, I have taught students who do a considerable amount of part-time work in the restaurant industry (which is what these bills are primarily aimed to help) and it can often be a struggle to get them to finish their homework.

With school starting at 7:30 a.m., I have some concerns about my students working until 11 p.m. the previous night. Researchers from the University of Washington, University of Virginia and Temple University have recently shown that students suffer academic and behavioral problems when they work more than 20 hours a week. Twenty years ago, it was studies like those that originally led Maine to pass the law limiting the number of hours a student can work.

As any adult who has struggled to make ends meet during this crushing recession knows, it is tough to find work out there. As a state representative, I am continually contacted by constituents who have all but given up. Since this job only pulls in a part-time wage, I also often find myself in the same position. I tell them I’ll keep an eye out and I recommend the same employment resources that I use.

One middle-age constituent is currently trying to get two seasonal jobs so that he doesn’t have to collect unemployment in the fall when the work dries up. Another one wrote me to express his strong opposition to lowering of the minimum wage for individuals younger than 20, explaining that he had been kicked out of the house at age 16 and had to support himself on low-wage jobs.

As my father said: “Compulsory public education was based on a need for an educated citizenry, not training children for jobs. Our children need to learn to think critically to prevent them from being manipulated politically and economically.”

With the number of unemployed folks in our community competing for these jobs, the last thing we need to be doing is lowering the wages, which effectively devalues this kind of work and lowers the living standard for everyone. It’s important that our young people develop a good work ethic, but it’s only through education that they will become the leaders who will fix the problems previous generations have created.

Rep. Andy O’Brien, D-Lincolnville, represents District 44: Lincolnville, Islesboro, Hope, Appleton, Searsmont, Liberty, and Morrill.