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Iowa Senate GOP advances relaxing of child labor laws
Proponents say it will provide more opportunities; critics say it will cause harm
DES MOINES — Iowa teenagers under 18 would be able to work more jobs and for longer hours under legislation advanced early Tuesday by Republican lawmakers.
Republicans passed the bill shortly before 5 a.m. after roughly seven hours of debate that spanned late Monday into early Tuesday, and included multiple starts and stops as legislators became embroiled in a procedural dispute.
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The proposal to relax some state work regulations for Iowa minors has been working through the Iowa Legislature since early in the 2023 session, and has been among the most contentious proposals debated by state lawmakers.
Supporters say the legislation would create more opportunities for young Iowans to gain work experience and make money at a younger age, while critics express concern that the relaxed regulations will put children in harm’s way on the job.
“While the responsibility of having a job might be more valuable than a paycheck, the reward of the paycheck will allow these youths who want to have a job to possibly save for a car, maybe buy a prom dress, go to a summer camp, take a date out for the weekend, and even for some the ability to save some money so they will not be subject to the monstrous amount of debt that some will face in a few years by going to college,” said Sen. Adrian Dickey, a Republican from Packwood who managed the bill in the Senate.
Sen. Bill Dotzler, a Democrat from Waterloo, said, however, he believes there are “several” provisions in the Senate proposal that conflict with federal work regulations.
The federal labor department issued a statement critical of the bill passed by the Iowa Senate, and said there has been in Iowa a 69 percent increase in the number of children who are working illegally here.
“It is irresponsible for states to consider loosening child labor protections,” U.S. Labor Solicitor Seema Nanda said in a statement. “Federal and state entities should be working together to increase accountability and ramp up enforcement — not make it easier to illegally hire children to do what are often dangerous jobs.”
Democrats argued that Republicans are trying to address a state shortage of workers by opening up the workforce to more teenagers.
“The bill is here because we have a tremendous shortage of workers in the state of Iowa, and this legislative body has failed to address the workforce issues. We can’t find enough workers, so we gotta have child labor involved,” Dotzler said. “This bill is full of opportunities for young people to make mistakes. … I think this bill, down the road, is definitely going to cause young people to be injured.”
Among the provisions in the Senate bill:
- Iowans 14 to 17 years old could participate in work-based learning programs or work-related programs if granted an exception from the director of the state workforce or education departments. These so-called work programs could be in manufacturing and food processing, although not in areas where animals are slaughtered.
- Iowans under 16 years old would be able to work later hours, until 9 p.m. during the school year and 11 p.m. in the summer, and 16- and 17-year-olds would be able to work the same hours as adults.
Senate Republicans altered a provision that would have allowed 14-year-olds to drive to jobs, instead creating a legislative committee to study the state’s laws that permit some driving under the age of 16.
Republicans also narrowed a provision that would have allowed, with parental permission, Iowans 16 and 17 years old to serve alcoholic drinks in bars. Their updated version proposes to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to serve drinks in establishments like restaurants.
“We are not forcing them into slave labor. We are not selling our children,” Dickey said during debate, referencing comments that he said he has heard at protests and on social media. “We’re not even requiring them to work. What we’re doing is providing them opportunities to have a job during the same time of day that’s already allowed to their classmates and participate in extra curricular activities within their school.”
Dotzler, however, expressed concern that language in the bill is not clear and could still allow bars that sell food to employ 16- and 17-year-olds to serve drinks.
Dotzler attempted during debate to ask Republicans about that language, but in an exceptionally rare move they declined to engage, leading to the procedural dispute and protracted debate session.
Lance Coles, with the union Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO, called the bill’s passage “a disgrace.”
“This bill is out of compliance with Federal Law, will do nothing to attract new Iowans, and puts children at risk of death in dangerous occupations,” Cole said.
With its passage out of the Senate, Senate File 542 is now eligible for consideration by the House.
The House has its own bill, which is similar but not identical to the Senate bill. House File 647 was passed out of the House’s commerce committee in early March, and has been legislatively idle since.
The House proposal, similarly, would allow teens as young as 14 to request a waiver from the directors of the state workforce and education agencies to work as apprentices in factories, mines, construction sites and warehouses, among others, as part of “work-based learning” programs.
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