Bill Expands Iowa Child Labor, Limits Teens’ Protection If Hurt

A new bill in the Iowa Legislature would allow young teenagers to work in more hazardous conditions, while exempting businesses from liability for work-based learning programs if those teenagers get hurt.

14-year-olds could be assigned a wider array of potentially risky work, and both 14- and 15-year-olds could be scheduled for work shifts that last later into the evening.

The bill, Senate File 167, filed Monday by Sen. Jason Schultz (R-Schleswig), would allow more types of work for Iowa’s youngest workers, presumably to try and compensate for businesses’ inability to attract enough adult Iowans to their workplaces.

The legislation would be “a complete rewrite of our child labor laws,” according to Charlie Wishman with the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO, whose organization is registered against the bill.

“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,” he said.

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Most egregious, those who work in labor and employment law say, is the section of the bill that would make a business not liable for almost anything that happens to minors engaged in work-based learning programs.

“To me, it’s offensive,” said Sen. Nate Boulton (D-Des Moines), an attorney who specializes in labor law. “Putting children at risk, and creating immunity for that risk, is not acceptable.”

More hours, more hazardous work for kids

Under current Iowa law, children under the age of 14 can do limited types of work for others or work on their family’s farm or business.

Under the new bill, 14-year-olds are now the minimum age for any type of work outside of a family farm or business. But they would also be eligible to do all work 15-year-olds can currently do, including retail, food service, office work, cleaning and kitchen work. They can also take on these additional job duties:

  • work in industrial freezers and meat coolers
  • load and unload “light” tools from vehicles
  • work in an industrial laundry
  • detassling

Fifteen-year-olds would be able to do all of the above, plus:

  • load and unload and stock shelves items weighing up to 30 pounds (and up to 50 pounds with a waiver from the labor commissioner)
  • work as lifeguards and swimming instructors
  • perform light assembly work (with a waiver)

Both 14- and 15-year-olds would be able to work two hours later into the evening—until 9 p.m., up from 7 p.m., during the school year, and until 11 p.m., up from 9 p.m., during the summer. They would also be allowed to work up to six hours a day during the school year, up from four hours.

Those age 17 would be allowed to work the same hours as adults. Work permits would be completely eliminated.

And despite there still technically being some rules around what younger teenagers can’t do, the bill would also allow the director of Iowa Workforce Development or the Department of Education to “grant an exception from any provision,” including “hazardous” work, if that work is within a work-based learning program.

Then, after opening up hazardous work to younger Iowans, the bill also strips them of the right to worker’s compensation if anything should happen to them.

No worker’s comp for injury or death to students

Section 92.24 of the bill, “Employer Liability in Work-Based Learning,” would strip away worker’s compensation claims to students and their families, even if a business’s negligence was at fault.

The section as written wouldn’t “provide immunity” to businesses for “gross negligence or willful misconduct” in civil court. But a business would have “no liability” for any other type of “negligent act or omission.”

The difference between “negligent act” and “gross negligence?” Gross negligence is “a very high standard,” according to Cedar Rapids labor attorney and former legislator Nate Willems.

“Gross negligence is a concept that we believe exists, but it seems challenging for the Iowa Supreme Court,” Willems said, clarifying it was “exceedingly difficult” to prove in a court of law.

The way the bill is written, students in work-based learning programs would be the only working Iowans not able to collect worker’s compensation if they’re injured on the job, Willems added.

“The worker’s compensation system … has existed for 100 years as a no-fault system,” Willems said. “In this situation, any injury to the student would be on his or her family and their health insurance.”

Ultimately, the bill seems to leave Iowa’s youngest workers on the hook for anything that happens to them.

“Could there have been an opportunity to make a bipartisan workforce expansion bill? Absolutely,” said Boulton. “Instead, we have a bill that greatly expands child labor, creates new immunity provisions … and really does not account for the new hazards minors are going to have to face.”


by Amie Rivers

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