House Removes Most ‘Egregious’ Parts of Iowa Child Labor Bill, But Problems Remain

The Iowa House Tuesday passed the Legislature’s child labor bill, SF 542, with significant amendments to change some of the language that allowed minors to work in dangerous occupations.

Some of those amendments included changes suggested by House Democrats, but the bill still passed on party lines, 60-34. The bill, with its amendments, heads back to the Senate for approval.

“It does take care of some of the most egregious parts of the initial bill and I’m grateful for the compromise,” House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst said on the floor. “It makes sure 14- and 15-year-olds aren’t working in dangerous conditions. Period. That is a win for this chamber because it’s a win for Iowa kids.”

While she was happy with the changes, Konfrst and other Democrats said they couldn’t support the final bill because it could still do more to keep children safe.

That was the predominant view of Charlie Wishman, president of the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO, who pointed out the expanded working hours still violate federal child labor laws and said his group still doesn’t think the bill is necessary to address the needed updates to Iowa code, but he’s glad for the improvements.

“I think that there was a good faith effort on the part of House Republicans and House Democrats to work together to try and make this better,” Wishman said.

He called the previous version passed by the Senate “every parent’s worst nightmare.”

House lawmakers took out language that would have allowed state officials to grant exceptions for 14- and 15-year-olds to work in jobs currently banned for minors.

The House version also

  • Requires employers provide a copy of training materials to parents,
  • Prohibits sexually violent predators or registered sex offenders from employing minors,
  • Requires two adults to be physically present in the area if a 16- or 17-year-old is selling or serving alcohol
  • Declares minors can only serve alcohol while food is being served (but not in bars)
  • Requires workplace harassment be reported to the minor’s parents and to the Iowa Civil Rights Commission
  • Orders restaurant owners to require employees to attend sexual harassment prevention training.

Mining, logging and meatpacking are not allowed to employ minors and parents have to give written permission for their teenagers to participate in school-to-work programs such as welding.

Work-based learning programs would have to be approved by Iowa Workforce Development or the Iowa Department of Education. Employers would have to prove work done by 16- and 17-year-olds would be supervised and work training included safety precautions.

Wishman said even with the improvements, there are still activities and occupations the union objects to minors working in. Those include activities in work-based-learning programs such as woodworking, operating power saws, roofing, demolition, working on assembly lines and serving alcohol.

The bill allows 16- and 17-year-olds to serve alcohol with written permission from their parents and supervision, while food is being served. Lawmakers clarified teens can’t work in bars or strip clubs.

Wishman said minors should not have to interact with drunk customers.

“We did not think that, and still don’t think that, whether there’s food involved or not, there should be 16-year-olds serving alcohol,” he said. “It’s bad enough for 18+ year-old women in industries like hospitality.”

Though the guard rails about adult supervision and the requirements to notify employee’s parents and the state are in place, Wishman said it won’t necessarily stop children from being harassed.

“We’d rather the state not allow it,” he said. “But if something like this is going to pass, I’m glad that there was some effort to address the issue.”

Restaurants will have to notify their insurance companies if they have minors serving alcohol and Wishman said he hopes that makes restaurants think twice.

The House did not change language allowing Iowans under 16 to work six hours a day during the school year—they’re currently allowed to work four —or that 16- and 17-year-olds can work the same hours as adults. The Iowa bill also allows teens who are 14 and 15 to work until 11 p.m. in the summer and 9 p.m. during the school year.

Federal rules prohibit 14- and 15-year-olds from working past 9 p.m. in the summer and 7 p.m. during the school year.

The Iowa child labor bill is backed by business groups such as the Iowa Restaurant Association and conservative groups such as Americans For Prosperity. Major labor unions still oppose it.

In the past two years, at least 10 other states have passed or considered rollbacks to child labor protections. The Labor Department reported a 69 percent increase in child labor violations since 2018.

On Tuesday, the US Department of Labor announced they found two 10-year-olds working at a McDonald’s in Louisville, sometimes until 2 a.m, and more than 300 other minors working at McDonald’s across a number of states. In February, more than 100 children, some as young as 13, were found working for Packer Sanitation, cleaning meat processing equipment with dangerous chemicals.

Overall, Wishman said it’s hard to know what to expect from Iowa’s child labor bill, especially since it has to pass again through the Senate.

“It’s such a mishmash of stuff that they all threw together, some of this we’re going to have to wait and see how this plays out,” he said.

“I cannot deny that from where this bill started to where it is now there’s been a lot of major improvements to the bill. But if people want Iowa to be a place where workers come, where people come to this state, there are so many ways to do that other than to try and fill workforce shortage gaps with children.”


Nikoel Hytrek



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