Senate moves child labor bill after all-night debate

By: - April 18, 2023 5:49 am

Senators amended the bill to clarify that underage workers could serve alcohol in restaurants, but not bars. (Stock photo via Canva)

Senators passed changes to Iowa’s child labor laws early Tuesday to allow 14- to 17-year-olds to work longer hours and in restricted fields with parental permission.

Senate File 542 passed the Senate on a 32-17 vote shortly before 5 a.m. Tuesday after significant delays. The bill allows 14- to 17-year-olds  to work in industries currently prohibited for minors such as roofing, demolition and manufacturing as a part of an employer or school training program.

The bill also allows minors to work until 9 p.m. during the school year and until 11 p.m. during the summer — both two hours later than current law — and lets teens work up to six hours a day, up from the four hours currently allowed.

The legislation gained national attention as one of many bills passing through state legislatures offering expanded options for minor employment amid worker shortages. Sen. Adrian Dickey, R-Packwood, said he found the portrayal of the legislation as a child “slave labor” bill insulting.

“We do know slavery existed in the past, but one place it doesn’t exist, that’s in this bill,” Dickey said. “Throwing around such terms loosely and callously for shock value in the news, on social media, even within the walls of this great building, is irresponsible and wrong.”

He also denied claims that the bill was an attempt to address Iowa’s workforce shortage.

“I never even considered that to be an issue when this bill came in front of me,” Dickey said. “It simply is providing our youth an opportunity to earn and learn, at the same timeframe as his classmates do, while participating in sports and other fine arts.”

Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls said some of the industries where youth would be allowed to work in through employer or school programs are among the deadliest in the county. Excavation and demolition work is extremely dangerous for adult workers, and roofers have a fatality rate almost 10 times higher than the average American worker, Wahls said.

“No Iowa teenager should be working in America’s deadliest jobs,” Wahls said. “… Republicans are going to say this bill is about giving Iowa youth more opportunities to join the workforce, but allowing kids into these potentially dangerous workplace settings shows Iowans the truth, this bill puts Iowa children in danger.”

Sen. Charlie McClintock, R-Alburnett, said lawmakers have emphasized protecting children. He said he spoken to Iowans in emails and at forums on issues like the new law prohibiting gender-affirming health care for transgender youth.

“And I say, well, these kids really don’t have the the wisdom at that age or the experience in life to make some of those decisions,” McClintock said. “So we as lawmakers have to intervene and try to guide them or look out for them and pass laws to do that. And so, if we’re going to do that — and I’m going to vote for things like that — it just seems that how can I now support a bill that would potentially put those same kids into unsafe work environments?”

Dickey said opponents were misrepresenting the bill. Dangerous industries like mining, logging and meatpacking could not employ minors under the Senate bill, he said, and parents have to give written permission for teens to work in controlled environments, like existing school-to-work programs for welding and manufacturing jobs.

While Democrats tweeted and held protests over “false narratives” about the bill, Dickey said no Democrats approached him to talk about specific problems with the legislation in the three months before floor debate.

“Nobody from the Democratic party came to me with their concerns on this bill,” Dickey said. “Three months to do it. You have all kinds of time to make tweets and protests and do other things, but not really to improve the bill, if those were your real concerns.”

Democrats also brought up several areas where the bill’s language conflicts with federal labor laws. The bill contains provisions allowing minor workers to work in a freezer or meat cooler for cleaning fruits and vegetables and allows them to unload compactors, duties that federal labor laws prohibit minors from performing.

Dickey said Democrats have not addressed the other areas where Iowa is currently in violation of federal law, such as the hours minors can work .

“That could have been addressed, if it was an issue for you then but you didn’t see as an issue,” Dickey said. “… (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.”

Stalled debate

Floor debate on the child labor bill was more hostile than other bills discussed Monday. The bill’s floor manager, Dickey, and Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver refused to accept questions from Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, during floor debate.

Dotzler said in his 17 years as a legislator, he had never before experienced a floor manager refusing to accept a question central to a bill. He said Republicans were cutting out public input from the legislative process by not allowing him, as a minority party member, to ask questions.

“Is this the end of democracy?” Dotzler said. “It’s all about totalitarianism. We’re in control of everything so we can do whatever the heck we want. And the public don’t need to know, and the restaurant association don’t need to know, and taverns and bar, pub owners don’t need to know about their liability.”

Democrats held several closed-door caucuses and deferred the bill through the night Monday, coming back for the final discussion just after 3:30 a.m. Tuesday. They offered several amendments, including language increasing worker compensation for minors injured on the job and striking the provision allowing allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to serve alcohol in bars and restaurants with written consent from their legal guardian. All of the measures failed.

Republicans’ decision not to answer questions comes following an Iowa Supreme Court decision which cited state lawmakers misrepresenting the impacts and history of a bill during floor debate. Dickey answered the question in his closing comments on what counts as “incidental” food serving in establishes that serve alcohol.

Following the debate, Wahls said the move was a “flagrant violation” of appropriate conduct in the Iowa Senate. Democrats were told Dickey was instructed not to answer the question as the Supreme Court could use his answer to invalidate the bill if it becomes law, Wahls said. While Dickey addressed the question in closing comments, Wahls said Republicans stifled open debate by refusing to answer.

“Senate Democrats condemn in the strongest possible terms the Senate majority’s political decision not to answer basic questions about high-profile legislation,” Wahls said. “If you’re worried about the Iowa Supreme Court’s understanding of what is said on the Senate floor, the answer is not to stop answering questions. The answer is to tell the truth and admit when you don’t know the answer.”

Questions remain on serving alcohol

Following nearly four hours of meetings, Dickey introduced an amendment clarifying that 16- and 17-year-olds cannot work at bars — establishments where a person can purchase and consume alcoholic drinks on premises, and where selling food is “only incidental to the consumption of those beverages.” The Senate bill also stipulates that minors cannot work in places where nude or topless dancing occurs. The changes came after House Democrats expressed concerns about these underage workers being at higher risk of sexual assault, especially when working later hours.

Though Democrats supported the changes made early Tuesday morning, they said there were still multiple safety concerns about children working in establishments serving alcohol.

“Our kids belong in school, learning with their friends,” Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines said. “They don’t belong in restaurants and bars with adults on late on a school night. … We should have businesses who keep kids out of harm’s way, not exploit them and expose them to injury or liability. This is a bad bill that will harm the most vulnerable in our state.”

The Senate also removed a provision allowing workers under age 16 with an instructional permit to drive themselves to and from work without an accompanying licensed driver. The legislation instead establishes a study committee in the 2023 legislative interim to study and make recommendations for driving eligibility, education, and limits on time and distance for drivers between 14- and 18-years-old.

Reynolds supports youth employment

Gov. Kim Reynolds told reporters earlier in April that she supports expanding youth employment. Reynolds said she worked many jobs as a child, starting as a babysitter at 12, and said that parents and children should be allowed to make the decision on starting work at a younger age.

Working is a good experience, she said, and Iowa shouldn’t discourage kids who have free time and want to earn money through a job.

“That’s one of the reasons I’m such a huge proponent of work-based learning and registered apprenticeship programs, because it’s not necessarily starting at a younger age like that, but it really lets students interact with amazing businesses in our communities to find out what they have a passion for, what they’re good at, to learn how to communicate with other people, a responsibility of showing up and doing the job,” Reynolds said. “And those are all, you know, Iowa values that we tout.”

The bill is next available for consideration by the House. The House companion, House File 647, has differing language on subjects including exceptions for certain prohibited work activities, how many hours a 16-year-old can work and allowing 14- to 18-year-olds with a instruction driving permit to drive to and from work without a supervising driver.

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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.