The Iowa legislature has passed a Republican-led bill that would roll back child labor protections, including the hours teens are allowed to work and the establishments where they can be employed.
If signed by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds – who has expressed support for the measure – the bill would allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work two additional hours per day when school is in session, from four to six hours. They would also be able to work until 9 p.m. during most of the year and until 11 p.m. from June 1 to Labor Day, two hours later than previously allowed. The bill would also allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work the same hours as an adult.
Supporters say the relaxed laws would provide greater job opportunities for teens, though opponents have raised concerns that certain occupations permitted under the bill could place children in harm’s way and take their focus away from school and extracurricular activities. The legislation is one of several youth employment bills across the country aiming to relax child labor protections.
The bill has undergone fierce debate in recent weeks and lawmakers made several amendments to the legislation before it passed both chambers this week.
One of the provisions of the bill would allow teens as young as 16 to serve alcohol in restaurants during the hours food is being served if their employer has written permission from their parent or guardian.
A recently added bipartisan amendment would require two adults to be present while the teen serves alcohol and for the teen to complete “training on prevention and response to sexual harassment.” If they report a workplace harassment incident, employers are required to notify their parent or guardian and the state’s civil rights commission.
Among expanded work environments outlined in the legislation, 14- and 15-year-olds would be able to do certain types of work in industrial laundry services and in freezers and meat coolers – areas that are prohibited under current state law.
The proposed legislation would give authority to the directors of the education and workforce development departments to provide an exception to the work hours and some of the prohibited work activities, including demolition and roofing operations as well as operating certain power-driven machines, to teens 16 and older who are enrolled in a qualified work-based learning program.
Democrats argue that not only could this bill endanger the safety of children, but it would also target teens from lower-income and minority backgrounds. They urged Republicans to instead expand social benefits so children would not have to work to help their families.
“We must not forget that children and youth are our future,” Democratic state Sen. Todd Taylor said during debates on the measure last month. “They deserve to be protected, educated and given the opportunity to reach their full potential.”
Proponents of the measure argued the bill has been mischaracterized and pointed to a provision that removes existing exemptions allowing children under the age of 14 to work, including selling newspapers and other items door-to-door.
“We are not forcing them into slave labor, we’re not selling our children. We’re not even requiring them to work,” GOP state Sen. Adrian Dickey said on the Senate floor last week.
“What we’re doing is providing them opportunities to have a job during the same time of day that’s already allowed to their classmates to participate in extracurricular activities within their school,” he added.
The proposed legislation is part of a broader effort by some states to roll back child labor laws, including another Iowa bill signed by Reynolds last year which lowered the minimum age requirement to provide unsupervised child care to school age children in child care facilities to 16.
In Arkansas, a GOP-led bill signed in March that allows youth under the age of 16 to be employed without a work certificate. Several states, including Minnesota and Missouri, have also recently introduced youth employment bills that extend work hours for teens, according to the Economic Policy Institute. New Jersey and New Hampshire enacted such laws last year.