I wrote a story for MSNBC.com this week about Newt Gingrich’s daughter working as a janitor when she was 13, an age that the Department of Labor says is illegal to hold such a job.
The Republican presidential candidate had mentioned his daughter’s first job as part of his talking points on how poor kids in schools can take the jobs from adult janitors as a way to learn a better work ethic. As for child labor laws, he’s called them “stupid”.
I spoke to Gingrich’s daughter Jackie Gingrich Cushman about the janitorial job she held in the early 1980s at a local church, and she told me she was very proud of the gig. And, she said, she hoped she was working legally at the time.
“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.”
Before the story ran, I emailed Gingrich’s press team to find out if they knew Cushman’s job may have been illegal and his press secretary R.C. Hammond wrote: “Can they work as a clerk in the library?” I figured maybe he didn’t understand my question and emailed back: “I was specifically referring to Gingrich’s comment that his daughter worked a janitorial job at age 13.”
Your question tells me you are missing the point in what Newt has called for — his emphasis has been on the importance of having your first job where you learn a work ethic. In a school, there are plenty of things to do. You can work in the library, the computer lab, answer phones. A job in a school isn’t limited to helping the janitor.
What was your first job?
I’m not totally surprised at his deflection of my question and his questioning me about my first job. Gingrich has found a lot of success in this presidential race attacking the media, and hey, we deserve it now and then.
But at the heart of Gingrich’s help-the-poor agenda seems to be replacing adult workers at schools with young kids, as young as 9, at a time when unemployment is high and there are few good jobs around. Not to mention the fact that such jobs could be dangerous for kids, hence the laws prohibiting certain aged kids from doing certain types of jobs.
“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.”
As far as I know, I wasn’t replacing anyone when I took a job as a sales clerk for The Cake Box in Queens when I was about 15 years old. I had to serve customers and was on my feet for hours, and I also had a lot of grunt work in the back of the bakery scrubbing caked-on pans. I don’t remember what I made but I definitely learned about the value of a dollar.
I’ve always been an advocate of early work for teens so I might not be a great target for the Gingrich crowd. My book, “From the Sandbox to the Corner Office,” included a whole chapter about how most CEOs had held jobs when they were young and all the lessons they learned about work from toiling early. A study done by Jeylan Mortimer, professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, who I included in my book, found that students who worked built more confidence and responsibility than kids who didn’t.
But should they be janitors, or given jobs that hard-working adults now hold?
I mentioned Gingrich’s janitor plan to my kids and my 9-year-old son freaked out. “They clean kids’ throw up,” he shouted.
And, he added, “they don’t like to be called janitors mommy. They’re custodians.”