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Iowa Senate Republicans pass bill to relax some child labor laws

union members protest child labor law changes at the iowa capitol
Katarina Sostaric
/
IPR
Labor unions protested against relaxing some of Iowa's child labor laws earlier in the legislative session.

Senate Republicans passed a billTuesday that would relax some of Iowa’s child labor laws. It would expand what work teens aged 14 to 17 can do and what hours they can work. The vote came shortly before 5 in the morning, after an overnight debate.

The bill has had support from the restaurant, hotel, construction and manufacturing industries, as well as conservative groups Americans For Prosperity and the Opportunity Solutions Project. A long list of labor unions and groups that advocate for children, nurses, teachers, and mental health have vehemently opposed the bill.

Sen. Adrian Dickey, R-Packwood, managed the bill’s passage. He said the bill would strengthen and provide protections to Iowa youth.

“We are not forcing them into slave labor,” Dickey said. “We are not selling our children. 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 is already allowed to their classmates to participate in extracurricular activities within their school.”

Democrats and two Republicans voted against the bill, saying it could put kids in danger and take away from their education.

Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, D-Waukee, said the workforce shortage should be solved with affordable child care and housing, transportation, investment in public schools and colleges, higher wages, and quality of life initiatives.

“We won’t fix our workforce shortage on the backs of children,” Trone Garriott said. “Iowa children are not the ones who are responsible. It’s time for legislators to do their jobs.”

Sen. Charlie McClintock, R-Alburnett, was the only other Republican to speak during the debate. He said he opposes the bill because kids shouldn’t be used to fill the workforce. He said kids should spend their time studying, doing extracurricular activities, and spending time with friends and family.

McClintock also said he supported a lot of bills this year that were passed in the name of protecting kids.

“So if we’re going to do that, and I’m going to vote for things like that, it just seems that how can I now support a bill that would potentially put those same kids into unsafe work environments?” he asked.

Dickey denied that the bill is meant to help with the workforce shortage.

Which child labor laws would change?

Under the bill, 14- and 15-year-olds could work later, until 9 p.m. during the school year and 11 p.m. during the summer. They would also be allowed to work 6 hours a day during the school year instead of the current 4 hours per day.

It would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work the same amount of hours as adults.

The bill would expand the work activities that are allowed for 14- and 15-year-olds, including working in freezers and meat coolers. It would also expand what 16- and 17-year-olds could do, including light assembly work involving explosives.

It would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to serve alcohol in restaurants with permission from a parent, but not in bars.

The Iowa Workforce Development director or Department of Education director could grant exceptions to certain work activities that are illegal for 14- to 17-year-olds if it is part of a work-based learning program.

Those exceptions could be made for hazardous activities like the operation of woodworking machines, guillotine shears, repairing and cleaning power-driven food slicers and grinders, and the manufacturing of brick and tile.

Mining, work in meatpacking plants, logging, work in sawmills, assembly work, the operation of power-driven machinery, exposure to radioactive substances and poisonous chemicals would still be prohibited for minors in all circumstances.

Sen. Zachl Wahls, D-Coralville, said the bill would put kids in danger.

“Roofing, excavation and demolition are some of the deadliest occupations for adults, to say nothing of teenagers,” Wahls said. “No Iowa teenagers should be working in America’s deadliest jobs.”

Dickey said there are already programs that allow youth in a manufacturing environments for work-based learning.

“So this is, again, nothing new,” he said. “With this bill we’ll be strengthening our existing laws by requiring parents to sign a document giving permission for their child to work in these controlled environments.”

Dickey said the bill also gets rid of current laws that allow 10-year-olds to work in street occupations and allow 12-year-old migrant children to work. Opponents of the bill said they don’t believe those laws have been used in a very long time.

The Senate amended their bill to remove a section that would allow kids with a driver’s permit to drive to work, and instead require a study committee to evaluate Iowa’s driving laws for teens.

They also took out a provision that would have raised the burden of proof for worker’s compensation for kids injured in work-based learning programs.

The bill now goes to the Iowa House for consideration.

House Republicans previously advanced their own version of child labor changes that would allow work-based learning programs in assembly work, logging and sawmills, and meatpacking plants.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter