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New bill wrongfully encourages hazardous child labor in lieu of worker shortages
The introduction of Senate File 167 is dangerous — not only to children, but in the encouragement of hard labor at earlier ages for the sake of filling worker shortages
Iowans are in uproar after Senate File 167 was introduced in the Iowa Legislature, proposing a rewrite of Iowa’s child labor law. One might imagine this rewrite might be to further safeguard minors against hazardous working conditions or protect their educational opportunities, as those who came before us promised with the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. However, that is not the case as the bill’s sponsor, Republican state Sen. Jason Schulz, pushes for teenagers as young as 14-years-old to work in previously prohibited jobs — like mining, meatpacking and logging — as long as they’re part of an approved training program. And these minors would be permitted to work longer shifts that last late into the evening. What’s more: if a teen gets sick, injured or killed on the job, the company they worked for would be free from any civil liability of negligence. That’s pretty abhorrent stuff.
The introduction of this bill is dangerous — not only to children themselves, but in the nature of normalizing, even encouraging, hard labor at earlier ages for the sake of businesses’ inability to maintain enough adults in their workplaces and an economy that protects businesses, not people. This bill also puts disadvantaged teens at high risk, as kids from low-income families will likely jump at the chance to take home a bigger paycheck despite the danger.
The passing of the amended bill would also allow teens as young as 14 to work until 9 p.m. during the school year and 11 p.m. during the summer, working shifts as long as six hours a day during the school year. They’d also be able to obtain a special driver’s license, so long as they’re 14-and-a-half years old, according to the Iowa Department of Transportation. Sixteen-year-olds would also be permitted to serve alcohol if they receive the written permission of a guardian.
Child labor laws were put into place to protect children’s normal well-being — including their physical, intellectual, and emotional psychosocial development. It’s a public health issue. Encouraging child labor is detrimental to the economy, as it depresses economic growth due to the persistence of poverty in most cases, according to economist Eric Edmunds and professor of economics Caroline Theoharides in their Handbook of Labor, Human Resources and Population Economics (2020). “Working children are both a cause and a consequence of a lack of economic development,” the book reports. “Widespread child employment dampers future economic growth through its negative impact on child development and depresses current growth by reducing unskilled wages and discouraging the adoption of skill-intensive technologies. Child employment also appears to result from a lack of economic growth.”
It’s our responsibility to stand up for those without a voice or real power. One must ask themselves how they can stand by a legislator that willfully puts children at risk — and then creates immunity for that risk — because of labor gaps and worker shortages. Children can’t even speak for themselves in a professional capacity or represent themselves adequately in court — because they’re children. So, how can legislation such as the measure filed Feb. 6 ask children to perform tasks that even adults are wary of? It’s reprehensible and, moving forward, Iowa legislators must stand up to protect those who can’t protect themselves.
“Not only is this ripping up at least 100 years of child labor law that this labor movement has worked for, it seriously puts children at risk on job sites without having any form of legal liability protection,” Charlie Wishman with the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO said in a statement to Iowa Starting Line. If young teenagers are operating within a work-based learning program, the director of the Iowa Workforce Development or the Iowa Department of Education can grant an exception from any provision, including hazardous work. After being granted permission, these teens are stripped of worker compensation rights should anything happen on the job — meaning Iowa’s youngest workers would be entirely responsible for anything that happens to them.
And Democratic state Sen. Claire Celsi took to Twitter to decry the bill, as did journalist Lyz Lenz:
“Another sign that the labor market in Iowa is in BIG trouble … Businesses are so desperate to hire warm bodies that they want politicians to bend child labor laws (and eliminate corporate liability),” Celsi tweeted.
“Instead of raising the minimum wage and paying adults more or funding a social safety net, Iowa would rather bring back child labor,” Lenz tweeted
As we move through this legislative session, it’s imperative that we as Iowans make our voices heard and protect those who cannot protect themselves. Talk to your representatives. Email them. Write letters. Call them. There is the opportunity for great civic engagement here to encourage bipartisan support on a potential workforce expansion bill, rather than the disgusting show of exploitation that Senate File 167 exhibits.
Nichole Shaw is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: email@example.com
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