Local restaurants, schools mixed on impact of new youth employment rules

·7 min read

Jul. 2—A bill Gov. Chris Sununu signed into law earlier this month is garnering mixed reception from local businesses and educators over the effects it could have on high schoolers with jobs and how they balance employment with managing schoolwork, though some feel it could better blend the two.

Senate Bill 345, which became state law on June 17, repealed limits on working conditions for students. The first element of the bill eliminates the number of consecutive hours 16- and 17-year-olds can work, which was previously six days, as well as how late they can work. Those same aged students also now can work up to 35 hours each week, an increase from the earlier 30-hour cap.

In an emailed statement to The Sentinel on June 20, Sununu called the bill a benefit to both parties.

"This new law is a win-win: good for small businesses looking for workers, and good for kids looking for a job," the statement read.

The N.H. House of Representatives amended the bill before it reached Sununu's desk, striking its original limit on working hours of no later than 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and no later than midnight on Friday and Saturday, removing the limit entirely.

Keene High School Principal Cindy Gallagher agrees with the governor, but in a different light from an educational perspective.

"[The bill] will open up night shifts to kids, and that'll be the piece that'll be interesting," Gallagher told The Sentinel on Wednesday. "I would hope this is an important situation for students in something they really want to consider as a career."

Gallagher said extended teen working hours that the bill permits could create more meaningful intern programs for students, citing an instance of a Keene High School student who graduated from the school's tech center and entered a manufacturing job.

"[The student] came to school every day and then worked from 3-11 p.m.," she said. "Those kinds of things might create different opportunities for us to create work experiences where the kid gets the best of both worlds — a paid internship at 16, 17 or 18."

Lisa Witte, superintendent of schools for N.H. School Administrative Unit 93, expressed reservations for academic and social effects she feels the bill could have on students.

"I certainly understand the desire to increase workforce availability, but I'm not convinced this is a good strategy to do that," Witte said in an email to The Sentinel. "Working more hours or working early/late shifts could impact sleep and lead to difficulty staying focused and awake during the school day."

She added that more working hours might reduce teens' involvement in extracurricular activities, which she considered "concerning" as educators are trying to help students succeed socially as well as academically post-pandemic.

"Less downtime, less social interaction and less time to just be a kid," Witte said. "The needs related to COVID are more social/emotional in my view, and less time to attend to those needs may be an unintended consequence of this bill."

She's joined by Sen. Jay Kahn, who voiced his opposition to SB 345 when it was on the N.H. State Senate floor. Kahn said he believes there wasn't enough communication with schools and parents as the bill passed through the N.H. Legislature and was amended by the House. He also referred to SB 318, passed in 2018, to support his stance, which set the statutes SB 345 removed.

"The opposition I have is what was deleted, and we just debated this in 2018," Kahn said. "If you look at the testimony from this year's bill, it's very scant and limited. We hear from the restaurant industry and that's it ... no other employment groups."

Kahn said he understands that some educators are interested in working with students to create learning opportunities beyond school but that he thinks at the very least having defined hours for student workers is important to parents, including those in the legislature.

"It's a bipartisan concern expressed by a Republican like Sen. Bill Gannon, who has several kids this age and who was very concerned that students [may now] place work as a higher priority than school," Kahn said.

The other element codified into law now allows students aged 14 to bus tables in restaurants, a role which was restricted to those aged 15 and older before.

Adam Berube, owner of the recently relaunched Fireworks Restaurant & Bar, said this is something he's interested in seeing the effects of as a business that employs several high school students but noted he hasn't had applications from anyone younger than 16.

"I would entertain the idea of a 14-year-old coming in, especially based on how great these 16-year-olds have been," Berube said. "There are opportunities for bussing tables, cleaning and working in the kitchen washing dishes."

Berube said he feels high schoolers have a "mentality of wanting to be involved" in light of the pandemic and being remote in school, adding that many applications he's received have been from students aged 16-18 or recent graduates.

"For a lot of these kids, they might be getting their first job at 18 years old, and I think they have a strong desire to really want to work and make money but also to be around people," he said. "Watching them grow and develop in the last four weeks [since Fireworks opened] has been incredible."

Since the restaurant hasn't run during a full school year yet, Berube isn't sure about hours for teen workers in that time but said shifts are based on the volume of business and that teens at Fireworks so far have held shifts from 4 p.m. until either business slows or until closing at 9 or 10 p.m.

Gail Somers, owner of Yahso Jamaican Grille, also employs high school workers, whom she said usually work 15-20 hours weekly, but that she didn't foresee increasing hours for those aged 16-18 because of the bill.

"I don't know that I would need more of their hours; I think it's more about [asking ourselves] how do we get older, experienced workers," Somers said. "You still need a person at least 18 years or older in charge and on time."

With Somers' greater focus on quality over quantity, she said she doesn't believe the age reduction in bussing tables will impact her workforce either. Instead, Somers said she'd like to have increased talks with SAU 29 in bringing on students through its Cheshire Career Center, a pathway program that helps students in the SAU's three high schools connect with jobs that prepare them for the workforce while being mindful of their schooling.

Berube concurred, saying he's hopeful about working with the career center under his leadership and said the previous iteration of Fireworks had about six student workers who moved through the program over about eight years Berube served as its general manager.

"I think it's a great partnership and a great opportunity for the kids," he said.

Gallagher temporarily oversees the Cheshire Career Center after previous director Samantha Belcourt recently left. She said SB 345 shouldn't affect the SAU's vision for the career center under future leadership as hours for jobs set through the center are determined before students start work.

"I have a different person who signs the work papers ... and then they get filed in school counseling," she said. "If school counselors meet with kids and they say their job takes up their time, then we go back and read the work papers."

Gallagher said the center's future new director will be expected to work collaboratively with local businesses.

Tim Nail can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1436, or tnail@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter at @timmnail.