Feds Give Warning About Iowa’s Child Labor Law Rollback

Union groups rally against a bill to rollback Iowa’s child labor laws. Starting Line Staff Photo

Iowa’s new rollbacks on protection for children in dangerous occupations fly in the face of federal labor law in two specific ways, according to a new letter from the US Department of Labor (DOL).

Sen. Nate Boulton (D-Des Moines) sent a letter to the federal department on July 19, asking for clarification on SF 542, Iowa’s new law that rolled back several health and safety provisions regarding workers under 18 years old.

The new law, signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds in May, broadly allows younger Iowans to work in more occupations for longer hours, and restrictions are almost completely removed if the child is employed under a work-based learning program.

Seema Nanda, the DOL’s Solicitor of Labor, wrote back on Aug. 24, citing two specific problems with Iowa’s legislation.  Nanda noted the DOL did find some provisions that were “inconsistent with federal child labor law.” That letter was made public Friday by Iowa House and Senate Democrats.

“The Department has broad authority to enforce the child labor provisions of the FLSA [Fair Labor Standards Act],” Nanda wrote.

Two major problems

In her letter, Nanda noted the DOL was responding to Boulton’s request for “technical assistance regarding Iowa’s recently enacted child labor legislation and its relationship to federal child labor requirements.”

Nanda brought up two areas of concern:

  • allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to work in certain hazardous jobs under a work-based learning program
  • not requiring young workers in a work-study program to be registered with either a state or federal agency

Nanda wrote both were “prohibited by federal law.”

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‘No exception’ for hazardous work

If it’s through a “work-based learning” program Iowa law now allows 16- and 17-year-olds to do a variety of new, more dangerous jobs.

Nanda noted that included the ability to “operate power-driven hoisting apparatuses and power-driven bakery machines, to manufacture brick, tile, or related products, and to work in wrecking, demolition, or ship-breaking operations.”

Except federal labor law does not allow that.

“Under federal law, 16- and 17- year-olds cannot work in these hazardous occupations, and there is no exception for 16- and 17- year-olds participating in apprenticeships or student-learner programs,” she wrote.

Additionally, any such work-based learning program must be registered with a state or federal agency. Yet Iowa’s new law had no mandate to do so.

“Iowa Code § 92.8A does not require a 16- or 17-year-old apprentice to be registered by the Department or by a State agency, or to be employed under a written apprenticeship agreement or conditions that DOL finds substantially conformed to approved federal or state standards,” Nanda wrote. “This is inconsistent with federal requirements.”

If federal law is not followed, Nanda warned the DOL could enforce it, bringing costly fines upon Iowa employers.

“FLSA-covered employers that violate federal child labor law are subject to various penalties, including civil money penalties,” Nanda wrote.

‘We must fix this bad law’

In a response to the letter Friday, Boulton wrote Iowa’s new law “sets a trap for Iowa kids and businesses alike.”

“It makes our kids less safe by exposing them to hazardous environments that could get them injured or even killed—something the legislation itself acknowledged. And now it creates new bureaucratic confusion that can lead employers right into violations of federal law,” Boulton wrote.

“For legislators, it tells us we must fix this bad law and protect kids from dangerous jobs,” he added. “For employers, it’s a warning not to put their businesses at risk by hiring young people in illegal jobs. More child labor is not the solution to our workforce crisis.”

Rep. Jeff Cooling (D-Cedar Rapids) called out Republicans and “special interests”—the Iowa Restaurant Association, the Iowa Grocery Industry Association and Americans for Prosperity were behind the bill—for putting “kids’ lives at risk.”

“Not only is it confusing, but it proves costly for Iowa businesses just trying to do the right thing,” wrote Cooling, a ranking member of the House Labor and Workforce Committee. “Child labor is not the solution to Iowa’s workforce shortage and it never should be. It’s time to put people, especially our kids, over politics.”


by Amie Rivers

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