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Iowa governor signs law to loosen child labor regulations

Iowa governor Kim Reynolds
Charlie Neibergall
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill into law Friday that loosens some child labor regulations.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill into law Friday to loosen some of the state’s child labor laws.

In a statement Friday, Reynolds said the new lawhas “common sense labor provisions that allow young adults to develop their skills in the workforce.”

On a recent episode of Iowa Press on Iowa PBS, Reynolds was asked if the legislation is about giving kids more opportunities to work, or if it’s about filling open jobs.

“Well, it’s probably a little bit of both,” Reynolds said. “I mean, honestly, it helps fill a need, and it allows kids to earn a little bit of extra money, maybe start saving for college or to buy that first vehicle.”

Business groups facing a shortage of workers pushed for the changes, and labor unions opposed them.

The bill passed the legislature in early Maywith only Republicans supporting it, and all Democrats plus two Republicans opposing it.

Opponents of the legislation say it could put kids in dangerous situations at work and jeopardize their education, especially for low-income and migrant children.

“Senate Democrats do not oppose giving teens safe and age-appropriate work experiences that allow them to learn important skills and earn money to help themselves and their families,” Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said during a legislative debate. “But they must be safe.”

Starting July 1, when the law takes effect, 14- and 15-year-olds will be able to work later at night and longer shifts.

They can work until 9 p.m. during the school year instead of 7 p.m., and until 11 p.m. in the summer instead of 9 p.m. Fourteen- and 15-year-olds can work 6 hours per day during the school year instead of the previous law of 4 hours. The law does not increase the number of hours younger teens can work per week.

The new law allows 16- and 17-year-olds to serve alcohol in restaurants. They must have permission from a parent, two adult employees must be present, any harassment of minors must be reported to the parents and the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, and workers must attend workplace harassment prevention training.

It also lets minors do other tasks that are currently illegal, like use microwaves, work in freezers and meat coolers, and sell fireworks. And it removes the state requirement for employers hiring children to get child labor permits.

The law also says the directors of the state workforce department and education department can waive prohibitions on hazardous work for 16- and 17-year-olds if it is part of a work-based learning program. That can include using power-driven woodworking machines and working in demolition, excavation and roofing.

The law also establishes an interim study committee to review Iowa’s policies around driving privileges for minors. Business groups asked for an expansion of teen driving permits to allow them to drive to work, but that provision was left out of the final bill.

In a letter this month to Senate Democrats, U.S. Solicitor of Labor Seema Nanda said the legislation “appears to be inconsistent with federal child labor law in several respects.”

Iowa’s current child labor laws don’t all align with federal law, and that’s true of many other states.

But Nanda’s letter says the U.S. Department of Labor “will continue to closely monitor the status of child labor laws in Iowa and their potential ramifications for federal child labor law enforcement.”

The letter states the department has more than 600 child labor investigations underway nationwide, including in Iowa.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter