Reynolds signs law loosening Iowa’s child labor restrictions

Posted at 6:15 PM, May 28, 2023

Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law a measure allowing workers under age 18 to work longer hours, in some restricted fields and in jobs serving alcohol.

The governor signed Senate File 542 Friday afternoon. Reynolds said Iowa is joining 20 other states in providing “tailored, common sense labor provisions” that let minors develop skills in the workforce.

“In Iowa, we understand there is dignity in work and we pride ourselves on our strong work ethic,” Reynolds said in a news release. “Instilling those values in the next generation and providing opportunities for young adults to earn and save to build a better life should be available.”

But opponents say the law will put Iowa children in dangerous working conditions. The legislation allows 16- and 17-year-olds to seek exemptions for working in certain restricted fields, such as roofing, demolition and excavation, as a part of an employer training or school work-study program. It also allows teens over age 16 to sell and serve alcohol in restaurants while kitchens remain open.

Democrats argued these provisions will put teens in harm’s way — and when serving alcohol, at higher risk of sexual assault. House Republicans worked with Democrats making changes to what House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst said were the most “egregious” portions of the bill, which included not allowing 14- and 15-year-olds to work in restricted fields and adding more safeguards against sexual harassment for minors serving alcohol.

While Democrats said the final bill is an improvement over earlier proposals, they argue it still runs afoul of federal law.

The new law allows 14- and 15-year-olds to work between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. during the school year, and from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. during the summer. These youth workers can also work up to six hours a day, two more hours than previously permitted, and up to 28 hours a week maximum during the school year. Teens ages 16 and 17 can work the same hours as an adult.

U.S. Department of Labor officials wrote in a letter responding to Democratic lawmakers earlier in May that the legislation conflicts with federal labor law in multiple places. The expansion of work hours for 14- and 15-year-olds conflicts with federal law, which limits younger workers to work until 7 p.m. during the school year and 9 p.m. in the summer and caps them to three hours of work on a school day.

The legislation also allows 14- and 15-year-olds to perform work tasks prohibited by federal law, such as light assembly work and non-incidental work in meat freezers. With these conflicts between state and federal law, the DOL officials wrote that Iowa employers are still required to abide by the Fair Labor Standards Act when employing minors.

Sen. Adrian Dickey, R-Packwood said during floor debate that Iowa’s child labor laws have long conflicted with federal regulations. A “majority of the states in the United States are in violation of federal child labor laws as far as the hours that they can work, including Washington, D.C., that surprised me,” he said.

Konfrst has said the conflicting laws will create confusion for Iowa employers.

“Businesses are the ones who are caught here,” Konfrst said during an Iowa Press interview earlier in May. “They’re the ones who are saying, ‘well wait a minute, which do I follow? What is the law? Is it federal law, is it state law?’ And because Republicans didn’t take the time to sit down and look at what the implications were nationally … businesses are caught saying, ‘I don’t know what I can do and what I can’t do.'”

The law also establishes a study committee over the 2023 legislative interim to make recommendations on driving eligibility, education and limits on time and distance for drivers between ages 14 and 18. The original legislation proposed allowing 14-year-olds and older to obtain a special driver’s permit to transport themselves to and from work. Iowa already allows teens to get a special permit to drive between home and school at 14-and-a-half years of age.

Senate President Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, said on Iowa Press Friday that she has “concerns about kids driving period,” and that the study will give lawmakers some basis for passing changes to teen driving laws in future sessions.

“We’ve had school permits for a very long time,” Sinclair said. “I’ve had three boys with school permits and every one of them would drive home from school after a Friday night football game or a Tuesday night basketball game, they would drive home late after they got home from their games. And so, yeah, there was always a concern about are they going to hit a deer on their way here? Are they going to be too tired to drive? Sure, we have, there would be concerns. And again, that’s why you ask for a study, that is why you ask to look at the data rather than just dive into something that we don’t have evidence for.”

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

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