Child labor bill advances despite concerns over minors serving alcohol

By: - March 1, 2023 8:26 pm

Sixteen- and 17-year-olds would be allowed to serve alcohol under a child labor bill approved by an Iowa House committee March 1, 2023. (Photo by Getty Images)

Republicans on an Iowa House panel narrowed a child labor proposal Wednesday that has drawn national attention, but moved ahead with a provision allowing minors to serve alcohol in bars.

Democrats argued Iowa teenagers could be exposed to sexual assault through loosened child labor restrictions in House Study Bill 134. But Republican lawmakers said young Iowans are already allowed to work in bars under current law.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dave Deyoe, R-Nevada, introduced an amendment in the House Commerce Committee addressing some of the concerns subcommittee speakers and national media brought up about the legislation. Among the changes: 14- and 15-year-olds would not be allowed to work where meat is prepared, in response to concerns raised about young teens working in meatpacking plants.

The amendment also provides worker compensation liability protections for children. Deyoe said the state bar and association business industries worked to come up with the language necessary to clarify that youth can qualify for worker compensation programs through this bill, if they are injured on the job.

But Deyoe also said that the bill has been largely misrepresented by opponents, which would allow 14- to 17-year-old Iowans to work in jobs currently prohibited for children if they are participating in a training program. If the bill were approved, 14- and 15-year-olds would otherwise still not be allowed to participate in many industries, such as heavy manufacturing or construction sites.

“There’s very few changes,” Deyoe said. “There are restrictions for things like transportation jobs, warehousing jobs, construction jobs, manufacturing, mining, processing — those are currently not allowed in current law and still won’t be allowed under this bill. We’re adding some some new exceptions that … will be allowed.”

The bill drew national attention for allowing Iowa Workforce Development and the state Department of Education to approve waivers for students to work in places like mines or factories, if those jobs are a part of “work-based learning” programs through their employer or school.

For example, youth workers would be allowed to work in freezers and in laundry facilities, and 16- and 17-year-olds would be allowed to serve alcohol. The bill also allows employees under age 16 to work more hours, allowing them to work until 9 p.m. instead of 7 p.m., and until 11 p.m. from June 1 through Labor Day.

Democrats said one of their largest concerns were the provisions allowing youth to serve alcohol, especially at later hours under the bill. Rep. Megan Srinivas, D-Des Moines, said the bill’s proposal would put youth, especially young women, at a higher risk of sexual assault.

“It’s really hard to be sexually assaulted when a patron is no longer in the room,” Srinivas said. “But it is pretty easy to be sexually assaulted as a woman in the service industry bringing drinks to people who’ve been drinking for hours.”

Srinivas said no other state allows 16- and 17-year-olds to sell and serve alcoholic beverages unless a person at least age 21 is present as a supervisor. Maine allows supervised 17-year-olds and West Virginia allows supervised 16-year-olds to serve alcohol.

Rep. John Forbes, D-Urbandale, questioned whether 16- and 17-year-olds would be allowed to work at exotic dancing bars, or strip clubs, under the bill as they would be allowed to serve alcohol. Rep. Brian Lohse, R-Bondurant, pointed to existing law that prohibits adults from providing minors access to premises where obscene material is displayed.

Lohse said its important to keep in mind that 16- and 17-year-old Iowans are already working in bars.

“They work as barbacks, they do a bunch of important functions,” he said. “I’m sure Rep. Lundgren may have one or two in their employ, maybe, maybe not.”

The family of Rep. Shannon Lundgren, R-Peosta, owns a bar and grill. While she was concerned about minors being able to work at some bars in her district, Lundgren said family businesses would benefit from the bill by being able to give minor workers more responsibilities.

Lundgren disagreed with Democrats who said teens could be at a higher risk of sexual assault when serving inebriated customers, saying women are “sexually assaulted in doctor’s offices, in grocery store parking lots, in shopping malls.”

Deyoe said he was open to further amendments on the bill for issues like minors serving alcohol at bars in later hours. He said he wanted to make sure that minors were still allowed to work later hours in food service jobs, like at Dairy Queen locations that remain open for later hours during the summer.

“We still don’t know if the Senate is on board with with everything here,” he said. “And so my assumption is there probably will be another amendment. And, you know, one of the discussions was whether there might be a, some kind of a definition between a bar versus a restaurant.”

The bill advanced with amendment on a 15-8 vote. The action keeps the proposal eligible for debate by the full House ahead of this week’s legislative “funnel” deadline for committee approval of most policy bills.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.