Getting your 75 cents worth

Published 3:02 pm Friday, November 28, 2008

A timely story of government in your face:

A government agent walked into the office of the weekly publication, the Downington, Pa., Archive, thrust a card under the editor’s nose and said he was from the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor. He wanted to make a routine check of company books.

As those who run small community weekly papers know, circulation probably about 2,000, profits are slim at best. As the wage and hour agent began rummaging through the newspaper’s books, he wanted to know why the owners, a husband and wife team, president and vice president respectively, never took a salary. The editor said, “No, but by the time we pay all our expenses for each edition—paper, ink, utilities, wages—there’s usually only a deficit. Nothing for us.”

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The agent was described as a tall man with a face like a beaked eagle. He grasped a briefcase bulging with paperwork. The government agent told the editor, “The law says that anyone working for a corporation must receive a minimum wage per hour plus time and a half for overtime.”

This weekly newspaper, like many like it, also had a sideline printing business. The agent wanted to know if they printed any envelopes for any company in their town, and did this company mail those envelopes out of state. If so, he admonished, then the newspaper now was also engaged in interstate commerce.

As the agent and the owner were talking, a group of high school kids came bursting into the pressroom. The owner said the students helped fold newspapers by hand as they came off the press. They also inserted advertising supplements by hand. The high school students for their efforts got refreshments, loud radio programs, lots of chatter and some spending money for their labors.

“It’s sort of a private youth movement,” the editor explained. “When they are not in here, many of them are running loose in the streets, getting into all kinds of trouble. Here they earn some money and judging by applications we get, they seem to have a good time.”

The agent began cross examining each of the students, filing out detailed government forms with names, ages, parents names and so on

The agent said to the editor, “It is illegal to employ children under 16. I have to check their ages and make sure they are telling me the truth.” In addition, he said if they were going to fold papers, they couldn’t do it in the dangerous pressroom, but for safety reasons, they had to do it in the parking lot.

And check the ages he did. The newspaper editor a few days later got a frantic call from the high school principal wanting to know what was going on. “Some character from the government has been here all day wanting to see the records of every kid who ever went to school here. I had to dig them all out, and then he insisted on calling the students out of class for interviews.”

This phase of the investigation took the agent two days.

The agent returned to the newspaper and began going through the petty cash slips—$3 for Butch, 75 cents for Red—and so on, totaling more than 30 in all. It was explained those were chits for various students who have folded newspapers. Most of the chits went to kids with only first names noted, who might have only worked an hour or two, then never returned, now high school graduates, off at college or the military.

The agent tracked down as many as he could whose names were on the chits and had them fill out a 40-topic government questionnaire, telling them not to disclose what they were doing to the newspaper editor.

To make a long story short, the newspaper was required to halt the use of high school students to fold newspapers even though many desperately needed extra spending money, some to help bring extra income into their meager homes. The newspaper went into debt for $6,000 to buy a used folding machine that was more trouble than it was worth.

Alas, The Downington, Pa., Archive is history. This incident happened in the mid 1950s, a husband just home from World War II, with his wife, were a team enthralled with the mythology of owning and running a weekly newspaper. The wife, Jane S. McIlvaine, wrote a book about their trials and tribulations, “It Happens Every Thursday,” with “it” being the publication of that week’s edition.

I read this book so many years ago, I forgot when, but it was one of those epiphanies we all have when something inspires us into a lifelong journey. The incident with the government agent occupies only a short chapter in the book, but it points out that the government has been in our faces for far longer than we may realize.

Watching CSPAN the other night, former Sen. George Mitchell was lecturing on civil liberty violations inherent in the Patriot Act.

“Did you know,” he said, “that the President of the United States can order any citizen to jail, and hold him there without hearing or trial, for as long as he wishes. No judge in court can order him released, no lawyer can be retained, the person could be incarcerated for the remainder of his life without due process until the President pushes the release button.”

Why do we let these things happen and go unchallenged?

Is National Security becoming more nuisance than substance, just like the wage and hour man tracking down the kid who got 75 cents for his labors?