Workplace law changes would make for lost, dangerous Iowa childhoods, Council Bluffs labor leaders, parents, say

March 27, 2023 4:39 pm

Margorie Ingram, 81, of Council Bluffs joins a protest of proposed changes to child-labor laws in Iowa in front of  Wilson Middle School in Council Bluffs on March 25, 2023. (Photo by Douglas Burns)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.Council Bluffs — Labor leaders, parents and Council Bluffs community members say proposed radical changes to Iowa’s child-labor laws would redefine what it means to be a kid in the state, placing young people in jeopardy while driving down wages for adults amid the tumult of a worker shortage.

Jen Pellant, president of The Western Iowa Labor Federation, addresses a rally in Council Bluffs on March 25, 2023. (Photo by Douglas Burns)

“The folks that are for this bill want you to think it’s about giving more opportunities to 14-year-olds, that it’s about them bagging groceries or working at the Dairy Queen,” said Jen Pellant, president of the Western Iowa Labor Federation. “That is not what this bill is about. The bill is about billion-dollar corporations pressuring our Legislature to allow them to exploit our children.”

The Western Iowa Labor Federation organized the Council Bluffs rally.

“Over 100 years ago, we decided that kids belonged in classrooms and not factories,” Pellant said.

Meanwhile, key Republican advocates like state Sen. Jason Schultz of Schleswig, an architect of the more permissive child-labor laws, say they will boost the economy and create a new generation of skilled workers in the state as Iowans absorb early training.

About 30 people — with signs reading, for example, “Our kids are not for sale” and “Childhood means learning, not earning!” — protested the plans for child-labor changes in front of  Wilson Middle School in Council Bluffs late Saturday morning.

Former state Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, a Council Bluffs Democrat, said the legislation rolls back protections for kids, pure and simple.

“As originally drafted, it would also have said that if a kid is injured or killed on the job, the employer has no liability, they are exempt from liability — so they could kill your kid and you’d have to come up with the money to bury them,” Gronstal said.

At this point in the legislative process, Republicans have removed that employer-liability provision.

Gronstal said the legislation is designed to skirt federal workplace rules. He sees the bills, with GOP backers in the House and Senate, as aimed at depressing wages for adults who should be earning more amid a labor shortage. But there are not enough people 18 and older to fill thousands of job openings, he said.

“In scores of different ways, Republicans have run people out of the state of Iowa,” Gronstal said.

Mary Anne Kuhr, president of the Loess Hills chapter of the Association of University Women, made the case that relaxing child-labor laws will hurt girls, and make it more challenging to achieve pay equity for women.

“This bill will allow young girls to work longer hours in work conditions that may not be conducive to good health, growing bodies, brain development and social and emotional development,” Kuhr said. “Allowing this bill to pass could move us back in history.”

Dr. Vergarie Sanford, pastor at Mount Zion Refuge Center in Council Bluffs, said history will judge Iowa harshly if the legislation passes.

“Why would we want to return to a time when the labor laws do not protect our children,” she said.

State Rep. Josh Turek, D-Council Bluffs, said the Legislature, led by Republicans, is now engaged in the destruction of the standards and customs that have made Iowa a strong state.

“We need our children to be in school and not in hazardous work conditions,” Turek said. “I can tell you we are going to fight this bill.”

This column was originally published by the Carroll Times Herald and Douglas Burns’ blog, “The Iowa Mercury” and is shared here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Douglas Burns
Douglas Burns

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa journalist whose family operated the Carroll Times Herald for 93 years. He is the founder and director of development for the non-profit Western Iowa Journalism Foundation. Additionally, Burns founded a marketing and advertising firm, Mercury Boost, which is based in Council Bluffs. He is the business development director for Latino IQ, an Iowa-based organization. Burns, who resides in Carroll, writes for a number of Iowa newspapers with his work also having appeared in The Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Kansas City Star. You can subscribe to his blog, The Iowa Mercury, on Substack.