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Gingrich daughter's teen work may have violated law

Phil Skinner / AP

Jackie Gingrich Cushman, daughter of Newt Gingrich, speaks at a news conference at the Georgia state capitol last month. Gingrich said in a debate this week that his daughter worked as a church janitor when she was 13.

During the Republican presidential debate this week, Newt Gingrich shared a story about how his daughter worked as a church janitor when she was only 13.

“I was actually proud of my clean bathrooms,” Jackie Gingrich Cushman said in an telephone interview Tuesday, referring to the janitorial job she held at the First Baptist Church in Carrollton, Ga., in the early 1980s. “I learned work has value.”

But that work may have been a violation of federal child labor laws that her father has denounced as “stupid.”

Cushman was 13 when she took the part-time, minimum-wage janitorial job, scrubbing bathrooms two days a week using cleaning supplies and a bucket. She said working as a janitor was a "great experience."

Asked if she was working legally as a janitor for the church, Cushman said, "I certainly hope so." 

But based on child labor laws in effect now and in the 1980s, 13-year-olds are not allowed to hold janitorial jobs, said Michael Hancock, assistant administrator for policy in the wage and hour division of the U.S. Department of Labor. There are no exemptions for religious organizations and their employees when it comes to child labor laws, according to the agency.

"I definitely see it as a child labor violation," said Reid Maki, coordinator of The Child Labor Coalition, when asked about a 13-year-old working as a janitor. "When you put a kid in a situation that’s designed for adults you're asking for trouble."

Gingrich’s reference to his daughter’s youthful employment is part of an ongoing narrative for the former House speaker: Poor kids should start toiling as early as 9 years old so they can learn what it means to make a living. “I’m going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job and learn someday to own the job,” Gingrich said in the debate Monday.

Research has shown that teens who have jobs early in life are more likely to build a strong work ethic. But handing over adult jobs to kids might not be the right way to do that, particularly because there are tasks younger kids are not allowed to perform under U.S. law, including janitorial services.

Under the law 13-year-olds can:

  • Deliver newspapers.
  • Work as a baby sitter.
  • Work as an actor or performer in motion pictures, television, theater or radio.
  • Work in a business solely owned or operated by their parents.

It's fine for 14- and 15-year-olds to work a janitorial job in many types of retail and service establishments. There are restrictions at these ages as well, however, under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

“They can’t work as janitors in any manufacturing establishment or industries that are deemed too hazardous for the employment of such youth,” according to the Labor Department.

A spokesman for Gingrich seemed unconcerned when informed that 13-year-olds are not allowed to work as janitors.

"Can they work as a clerk in the library?" press secretary R.C. Hammond responded by email.

Gingrich has proposed getting rid of age limits as a way to help build work values and save money because kids can do similar work for less pay than higher-paid adults.

"It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods in trapping children … in child laws which are truly stupid," Gingrich said in November talk at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, according to the Los Angeles Times. "OK, you say to someone, 'You shouldn't go to work before you're 14, 16 years of age.' Fine. You're totally poor. You're in a school that is failing with a teacher that is failing. I tried for years to have a very simple model. Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school."

Not everyone agrees.

“Substitution of child labor for adult labor is never an economic bargain,” said Hugh Hindman, professor of labor at Appalachian State University, and author of “Child Labor: An American History.”

“Not only are adults with full-time jobs earning living wages displaced by kids with part-time jobs earning minimum wages, but the competition between children and adults will also depress the wages of those adults who hold on to their jobs,” Hindman said.

Gingrich makes some important points about poor children, however, he said.

“Opportunities for the kind of freelance jobs that teach responsibility and provide pocket money, baby-sitting, mowing lawns, shoveling snow, etc., are disproportionately skewed toward middle- and upper-middle-class kids,” he said. “Poor kids do need this kind of opportunity, but I'm not sure janitorial service is the ticket.”

Jeylan Mortimer, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota who has researched the impact of work on teens and found it helps them build confidence and interpersonal skills, supports any attempts to help adolescents get jobs.

“The employment market for high school students has collapsed, largely as a result of competition with adults for teen jobs, and teen employment is now at its lowest level since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began compiling the data,” said Mortimer, author of “Working and Growing Up In America.” 

The December unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds was 20.3 percent, well above the 8.3 percent overall jobless rate. For blacks in that age group it's 42 percent.

Mortimer isn't big on proposals she’s hearing from the stump to fix the problem.

In addition to displacing adult workers, it would “likely expose teens to difficult, and possibly hazardous, work conditions, lots of bending and lifting, exposure to harsh cleaning agents, etc.," she said.

She suggests creating a program where students can assist teachers or tutor at schools depending on their achievement level, and that wouldn't displace adult workers but would relieve "overworked educators."

As for Gingrich's daughter, she sees value in all types of jobs when it comes to helping kids learn about work, but she maintained that unskilled labor may do the most character building.

“Cleaning bathrooms taught me a lot,” Cushman said, adding that she worked many menial jobs, including being a rollerblading waitress for the Sonic Drive-In chain in high school. Such experiences, she added, helped her value hard work and “appreciate and value the people that do the work as well.