The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A GOP lawmaker wants to repeal child labor laws in his state. He employs hundreds of minors.


Under Indiana’s child labor laws, minors can work for a limited number of hours: 18 hours a week for those ages 14 and 15 and 30 hours a week for 16- and 17-year-olds. Working more than that and into late-night hours requires parental consent. A six-hour work day must include 30-minute breaks.

A new bill would scrap these rules, a move that opponents fear would enable bad actors who expose minors to excessively long working hours. But there’s another factor that has raised concerns: The bill’s author, Republican state Sen. Chip Perfect, owns a ski resort — and he employs hundreds of minors — which has led to questions about his motivations.

“My concern is: Does their business interest undermine their ability to fulfill their responsibility to their constituents?” said Abe Schwab, an ethics expert and philosophy professor at Purdue University in Fort Wayne, Ind. “Their judgment isn’t supposed to be one that represents themselves. . . . If they sponsor legislation that clearly favors themselves, then there’s reason to worry that their judgment has been compromised.”

Perfect, who owns Perfect North Slope in his district in southeastern Indiana, said in a statement that he had requested the Senate Ethics Committee to rule on whether a conflict of interest exists. All members, Republicans and Democrats, found it doesn’t, Perfect said, though he didn’t explain why. He said he also consulted with the former chairman of the committee when he began thinking about sponsoring the bill and was told there was no conflict of interest.

State Sen. Liz Brown (R), chairwoman of the ethics committee, declined to comment, saying ethics hearings are confidential.

So is it a conflict of interest? Indiana law says it’s up to the legislators.

The state’s ethics rules don’t prohibit legislators from sponsoring or voting on bills that would personally or financially benefit them. Instead, they give legislators discretion in deciding whether their stake in a bill amounts to a conflict of interest.

“It’s really just a system of self-policing,” said Julia Vaughn, policy director of Common Cause Indiana, a government watchdog group. “Obviously, the individuals have widely varying abilities to police this . . . widely varying in their sensitivity to what constitutes a conflict or not.”

“In their mind, they’re protecting the institution in that way,” Vaughn added. “I think, long term, just the opposite happens. The institution is hurt when we constantly have these kinds of situations when everybody outside the statehouse seems to see a conflict of interest, but nobody inside the statehouse can see it.”

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A politician sponsoring a bill that would affect his business is hardly uncommon, experts say, particularly in a state where legislators only work part-time and have day jobs outside of government. Legislators are often assigned to committees related to their areas of expertise, said Andy Downs, a political science professor at Purdue University. Teachers are assigned to education committees, farmers to agricultural committees and attorneys to help revise the criminal code, for example. Perfect, a business owner, is the chair of the Senate Commerce and Technology Committee.

While seeking someone’s expertise has some advantages, it also raises questions about whether legislators are acting in their constituents' interests or their own. But in a conservative state like Indiana, concerns over a conflict of interest, or even the appearance of it, are usually overlooked if, for example, the legislation would help small businesses, Downs said.

“Given the political culture of the state of Indiana, we accept a certain amount of what some might consider to be corruption,” Downs said. “Government exists to help move economic interest.”

Perfect told the Indianapolis Star that his ski resort employs as many as 400 minors. Because his bill would scrap limits on the hours that minors can work, it would allow businesses such as his to have minors working as late as midnight without their parents' consent. Perfect North Slope is open until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.

The bill would also scrap work permit requirements — regulations that those who favor the legislation saw as antiquated. Matt Eckert, chief executive of Holiday World, has testified that work permits only create an administrative burden, the Star reported. Under current laws, minors have to have permits, signed by their parents or guardians, before they can work.

In his statement to The Washington Post, Perfect said the legislation “includes positive reforms to the system, while still maintaining adequate protections for the Hoosier workforce.”

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But critics say the bill would leave very little protections for minor employees and no leverage for their parents. Indiana would still be covered by federal child labor laws, but critics say they’re comparatively lax, particularly for older teenagers. Federal laws allow teenagers ages 16 and 17 to work for an unlimited number of hours, though they restrict how long younger teenagers can work.

“It would just really open things up with no oversight of employers,” Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association, said of the proposed bill. “So those bad apples that currently violate the system or violate the laws would have no regulation or oversight that would prohibit them from doing so.”

According to state Department of Labor data cited by the Star, child labor penalties were nearly $1.5 million last fiscal year. The agency’s spokeswoman told the newspaper that Perfect’s business did not have violations from its most recent inspection last year.

School performance and academic achievement also could be affected, Spradlin said, especially if students have to work late-night hours and go to school early the following day.

Under the bill, the state’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles would no longer be required to revoke or suspend the driver’s license or learner’s permit of a student who had failed or dropped out of school. This means students who would rather drop out so they can work full time can keep driving to work, and their parents wouldn’t have a say, said Shawn Christ, secretary and treasurer of the Indiana State AFL-CIO, a trade union.

“My son wanted to drop out of high school when he was 16, but I had some leverage on him. He can’t have his driver’s license, and I won’t sign off on his work permit,” Christ said. “My kid decided to stay in school, and now he’s in his second year of college.”

But if the bill becomes law, Christ said, “you can keep kids working at 2 a.m., and there’s nothing parents can do about them.”

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