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Feds: Iowa’s youth labor bill would violate federal rules
Statehouse Republicans say objection is based on outdated information
DES MOINES — State labor rules for Iowa children in the workplace would be relaxed in a way that conflicts with federal workforce regulations under legislation awaiting Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ signature, the federal labor department wrote in a letter published Wednesday by Iowa Statehouse Democrats.
Statehouse Republicans pushed back, saying some of the information in the letter is outdated because of changes made to the proposal during the legislative process, and because of what they say is a misinterpretation of the bill.
The letter from the U.S. Department of Labor, dated May 10, is a response to an inquiry letter sent March 14 by multiple Democrats in the Iowa Legislature.
In the letter, the federal labor department says that Senate File 542, called the youth employment bill by its supporters and child labor bill by its opponents, has at least four provisions would create labor standards for Iowa children that are lower than federal standards. Any employer that allowed to Iowa children to work under those contrary terms contained in the state legislation would then be in violation of federal regulations.
“The (Fair Labor Standards Act) establishes federal standards with respect to child labor, and states cannot nullify federal requirements by enacting less protective standards,” says the letter, which is signed by the federal labor department’s Solicitor of Labor Seema Nanda, and Wage and Hour Division Principal Deputy Administrator Jessica Looman.
The bill would allow Iowa children to participate in some work activities that are currently prohibited and to work longer hours. It lets the state workforce department issue waivers to permit children to work under some circumstances that are currently prohibited, and allow the workforce or education department to grant exceptions for 16- and 17-year-olds to participate in work-based learning programs.
The proposal was approved with only Republican support in the Iowa Legislature.
Reynolds has not yet taken action on the bill. Her office did not say Wednesday whether she will sign the legislation into law, only that she has until June 2 to do so.
Democrats and labor leaders argued the proposal would result in placing Iowa children in workplace situations that would be dangerous to their health.
“This letter confirms what we’ve argued since this debate began: in the rush to expand child labor in Iowa, Republican legislators will be inviting businesses to break federal law,” said Sen. Nate Boulton, a Democrat from Des Moines, in a statement. “Protections against unsafe and exploitative child labor are there for a reason, and failed measures to address Iowa’s workforce crisis is no excuse to undermine those safeguards.”
The U.S. Labor Department letter also said it does not publish state-level active child labor investigation data, but said the department currently has more than 600 such investigations underway nationwide, including in Iowa.
“With active child investigations underway in Iowa, now is not the time to put more kids at risk in dangerous working environments,” Iowa Rep. Jeff Cooling, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids and the party’s top member of the House’s labor and workforce committee, said in a statement, while also calling for Reynolds to veto the bill. “It’s bad for Iowa kids, parents, and local Iowa businesses who may get fined.”
Republicans contested the conclusions reached by the federal labor department, and argued that many of Iowa’s and other states’ youth labor regulations already are out of step with federal regulations.
“For years, nearly two dozen states, including Iowa’s current law, have youth employment laws out of sync with federal standards and DOL has never made an issue of it,” said Sen. Adrian Dickey, a Republican from Packwood, in a statement. “The rest of the letter addresses language no longer in the bill, responds to an inaccurate description of the bill, or is irrelevant to content the bill. After the last two and a half years, no one should be surprised by incompetence from the Biden Administration.”
A statehouse Republican spokesperson said while the labor department’s letter notes that federal law prohibits work in meat freezers, the legislation would permit only “momentary” work in meat freezers. Similarly, the spokesperson pushed back at the letter flagging of a provision that allows 15-year-olds to apply for a waiver to perform “light assembly work” provided it is not performed on or in an area with machines.
Republicans argued during legislative debate that Iowa youth currently are permitted to participate in athletics and other extracurricular activities that go well beyond the hours they are permitted to work. The bill, they argued, provides more opportunities for Iowa youth who do not participate in athletics but would like to work more and later hours.
“Teenager schedules for extracurricular activities routinely go well past the 9 p.m. limit in the bill during the school year, and many social schedules also regularly exceed the 11 p.m. limit during the summer. Those limits are very reasonable for the lifestyles of today’s youth,” Dickey said in a statement. “A youth who desires and aspires to achieve more should be encouraged, not looked at negatively. Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, this bill is a common sense update to Iowa’s youth employment laws. It responsibly expands opportunities for Iowa youth.”
Nanda, the Solicitor of Labor, said the department is monitoring state action on child labor laws.
“The FLSA and its child labor protections apply in all states, and no state has the ability to limit these provisions,” Nanda said in an email to The Gazette. “The Department will vigorously enforce child labor protections in all states and is closely monitoring state action in this area.”
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