U.S. Officials Say Iowa Child Labor Bill Does Not Comply With Federal Law

Robin Opsahl, Iowa Capital Dispatch

The child labor legislation awaiting Gov. Kim Reynolds’ signature does not comply with federal law, according to a letter from U.S. Department of Labor employees.

Seven Democratic state senators sent a letter to the federal department in March, requesting a review of the provisions in Senate File 542 to determine whether they meet federal labor law requirements.

The bill, passed by both chambers of Iowa’s Republican-controlled Legislature, would lengthen hours minors can work and allow 16- and 17-year-olds to sell and serve alcohol. It also would allow minors to seek waivers from the state to work in restricted fields in employer training and work-study programs.

The labor department found multiple places where the bill’s language would conflict with federal labor laws, such as the hours 14- and 15-year-olds can work in Iowa. Iowa’s current law complies with federal regulations, allowing 14- and 15-year-olds to work between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. during the school year and until 9 p.m. in the summer. The legislation would allow minors to work until 9 p.m. during the school year and until 11 p.m. in the summer.

The bill would also allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work six hours on a school day, with 28 hours a week maximum during a school year. Federal law limits these young employees to three hours of work on a school day and 18 hours per week during the school year.

The legislation also allows workers ages 14 and 15 to perform certain tasks — non-incidental work in meat freezers, industrial laundries and light assembly work — that are prohibited by federal law.

“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,” Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, said in a news release. “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.”

During floor debate, Sen. Adrian Dickey, R-Packwood, said some of Iowa’s neighbors, as well as Washington D.C., also have state laws that allow minors to work longer hours than allowed by federal law. The youth provisions in Iowa’s labor laws have not complied with federal regulations since 1970, he said, and Iowa Democrats have not changed these rules when they held majority rule in the decades following.

“If you’re outraged on this bill because high schoolers will be able to work hours that contradict federal law, then why did you try to introduce legislation to legalize recreational use of marijuana?” Dickey said in April. “Or support a gubernatorial candidate that had legalizing marijuana as one of her main platforms, where legalizing marijuana is clearly breaking federal law and so much more severe?”

In the letter, Seema Nanda, solicitor of labor, and Jessica Looman, principal deputy administrator at the Wage and Hour Division, wrote that states “cannot nullify federal requirements by enacting less protective standards.” Iowa employers and minor workers would still required to follow the regulations set out in the Fair Labor Standards Act, even if state labor laws change.

State lawmakers also asked the federal labor officials if there were child labor law violations under investigation in Iowa. The department does not release state-specific numbers, they wrote, but shared that there are currently 600 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,” Rep. Jeff Cooling, D-Cedar Rapids, said in the release. “Since this bill was pushed by out-of-state special interests, the Governor should do what’s best for Iowans and veto the bill. It’s bad for Iowa kids, parents, and local Iowa businesses who may get fined.”

Some of the other conflicts with federal law brought up in the letter were addressed in the Iowa House’s bipartisan amendment to the bill, which strips back proposed changes such as allowing 14- and 15-year-olds to obtain exemptions to work in potentially hazardous fields and puts more regulations on businesses employing teens to serve alcohol.

Reynolds said she supports expanding youth employment in April. She has until June 3 to sign the child labor legislation — and the dozens of other bills sent to her desk during the 2023 session — into law.

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: info@iowacapitaldispatch.com. Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

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