Proposed child labor law change would put kids in harm’s way

February 24, 2023 8:00 am

Child labor laws were passed, and authorized by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, to deter the predatory behavior of employers toward young, vulnerable individuals like these boys working in Pennsylvania coal mines. (Photo by Lewis Hine/Records of the National Child Labor Committee, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.They’re just kids. But now I see that we’re going to solve Iowa’s workforce shortage on the backs of our high school students.

Senate File 167 by Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig, would allow teens to work longer hours and more types of jobs. The legislation would allow:

  • 14- and 15-year-olds to work evening work shifts ending at 9 p.m. (currently 7 p.m.) During summers, 11 p.m. would be the latest (currently 9 p.m.)
  • Working up to 6 hours a day during the school year (currently 4 hours.)
  • 17-year-olds to work the same hours as adults.
  • Eliminating work permits.

But the most concerning changes in the legislation are in Section 92.24: If teens participate in a work-based learning or a school or employer work-related program, the state’s workforce development director would have the discretion to waive prohibitions on minors working in manufacturing, mining, and food processing, in some cases. This would allow 14 and 15-year-olds to work in industrial freezers, meat coolers, unloading and loading “light” tools, and industrial laundries.

Here’s the kicker: If a minor becomes ill, is injured, or killed, companies would be shielded from liability. (Exception: Only the highest standard, gross negligence or willful misconduct could be filed in civil court.) No workers’ compensation claims, either.

Based on my farm perspective, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to observe the real-life impacts of inappropriate expectations of youth in the workplace. I was asked to serve on the Farm Safety 4 Just Kids board in the early 1990s, largely as a result of my articles in Successful Farming focused on protecting kids. The nonprofit organization was formed by Marilyn Adams, an Earlham, Iowa, farm woman who lost her 11-year-old son Keith in a gravity-wagon suffocation accident in 1987. He had begged to stay home from school to help his stepdad with harvest, and was left unsupervised just long enough for him to misjudge the danger of his actions.

He was far from the first youth to die doing farm work on his parents’ farm. When I began writing about such tragedies, most parents still were suffering in silence. Accidents were regarded as an unforeseen, and an avoidable part of working on a farm.

“No one could tell me that a child’s death was a cost of doing business,” Marilyn told me.

Risks vs. rewards

Kids want to work, and seldom voice safety concerns. Over the years, I was invited to sit at the kitchen tables of many grieving parents who had lost a child working on the farm.  Some of these fatalities stemmed from driving tractors, a chore that often is considered a rite of passage for farm boys. Most of these families had the sincere desire to instill their children with a work ethic. But the risks were not carefully evaluated, and didn’t come close to outweighing the benefits.

In 1999, I served on a 16-person steering committee formed by the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety in Marshfield, Wisconsin, to create age-appropriate task-related guidelines in agriculture. I learned that even if kids meet the age and physical size requirements, training is critical. Beyond training, mature judgment is a major factor, especially the cognitive ability to make split-second decisions in an emergency. The end product of our steering committee was a set of 48 Agricultural Youth Work Guidelines designed to help adults assign work consistent with a young person’s abilities. (Read more at

Most of my focus over the years related to unpaid labor on family farms.

But I also wrote about the high-profile deaths of two teen workers in the Illinois commercial grain industry in 2010. Wyatt Whitebread, a 14-year-old, was sent with a 19-year-old co-worker, Alex Pacas, who was on his second day of the job, to climb a ladder four stories high and enter the industrial grain bin to unclog the grain. Grain can act like quicksand, and without warning, they were pulled under. The teens had no little or no training, no safety gear, and their employer was in violation of federal regulations. (That same month, two Michigan teens died while power-washing a silo. Silo gas the suspected culprit.)

A Carroll County, Illinois, jury awarded $17 million to the families of the teenage victims. OSHA and the U.S. Department of Labor also became more vigilant regarding inspections and fines. But no one went to jail. Is it really all about the almighty dollar, and carrying water for business interests?

I’m aware that the Iowa legislation only would allow teens to work in more hazardous occupations if they’ve participated in training. I think it should make us all very uncomfortable to allow any Iowa Workforce Development director the sole power to loosen prohibitions and allow companies to take advantage of youth workers.

Who is minding the store?

Who hasn’t walked into a convenience store or fast-food restaurant, looked around, and felt outnumbered by high school kids left in charge? The number of teens holding jobs fluctuates from the school year to the summer months, and varies according to economic conditions. An estimated one-third of teens today hold jobs, including retail, food service, office work, cleaning, and kitchen work. Most of these opportunities weren’t available when I was their age. My sister and I detasseled seed corn in the summers, along with occasional babysitting.

None of us owned a vehicle in high school. We didn’t have to pay for cell phones. Our focus was on school, our classes, and participation in extracurricular activities. With today’s longer, rural commutes to school activities and practices, cars and phones have exponentially expanded the monetary needs of teenagers.

I know high school seniors today who take the absolute minimum of classes, working almost full time. They drive 45 minutes one way to work, including evening shifts and Sunday morning shifts, in all kinds of weather. I also know younger high school students who are hired to work at bars, although they’re confined to kitchen work.

Child labor laws were passed, and authorized by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, to deter the predatory behavior of employers toward young, vulnerable individuals. As adults, we’re responsible for the safety and health of children (not only our own).

I told myself that I wouldn’t react to every misguided bill introduced this legislative session. But given the super-majority status of the Republicans, it’s difficult to know what may have a good chance of passage. Even if passage of legislation like this doesn’t lead to teens’ performing hazardous work, evidence shows that teens working jobs leads to lower grades and increased drop-out rates. I’m not convinced by the reassuring language in this legislation: “The terms and conditions of job will not interfere with health, well-being, or school of minor enrolled in an approved program.” It’s a slippery slope. Kids only are young once in their lives.

We already saw an earlier iteration of this effort to solve workforce shortages on the backs of teens when the Legislature allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to work in child care centers without supervision, beginning July 1.

Wouldn’t our legislators be doing more for the benefit of our state if they focused on legislation that encourages graduating high school students to enroll in trade or technical schools, where they could be trained for in-demand jobs, and not tempted by a steady paycheck to remain in the same, low-wage, low-skill jobs they held during high school? Are our elected officials doing enough to address worker pay and retention in these necessary, but high-turnover jobs?

The ink was hardly dry on this column before the latest findings from the U.S. Department of Labor’s federal investigation was announced, revealing that more than 100 minors as young as 13 were working in hazardous overnight jobs in eight states. These kids were cleaning 13 meat processing facilities for one of the largest food safety sanitation services in the U.S., the Wisconsin-based Packers Sanitation Services, Inc. (PSSI) They were using hazardous chemicals to clean dangerous power equipment including head saws and back-splitters. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the company was fined more than $15,000 for each minor employed in violation of the law.

Most of these violations took place in our neighboring states of Nebraska, Kansas, and Minnesota. This includes JBS in Grand Island, owned by a Brazilian company, Cargill in Dodge City, and Turkey Valley in Marshall, Minnesota. Although some of the youths were flagged as minors by PSS, companies ignored the information. (Fun fact: Packers Sanitation Services originated in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, in 1970.)

In a statement released by the U.S. Labor Department, Jessica Looman, principal deputy administrator, wage and hour division, said, “These children should never have been employed in meat packing plants and this can only happen when employers do not take responsibility to prevent child labor violations from occurring in the first place.”

As Iowans, we also would be complicit, along with our elected representatives and governor, if we look the other way, and continue down the slippery slope of S.F. 167, putting our children in harm’s way.

This article first appeared on Cheryl Tevis’ blog Unfinished Business, and it is republished here via the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Cheryl Tevis
Cheryl Tevis

As farm management editor at Successful Farming magazine at Meredith Corp. in Des Moines, Cheryl was the first woman editor in the magazine's history to write about business. Her monthly column elevated the role of women in agriculture. She also wrote the longest-running farm magazine's health and safety page. She retired in 2015, after 36 years. Cheryl served on the board of Farm Safety For Just Kids, and is a founding member of Iowa Women in Agriculture. She farms and is a longtime 4-H leader and community volunteer in Boone County, Iowa. Her column, Unfinished Business, is on Substack and she is a member of the Iowa Writers' Collaborative.