Senate sends child labor bill to governor

Teens would be able to work longer hours and in some ‘dangerous’ workplaces

By: - May 3, 2023 7:19 pm

Teenagers could work more hours and in some workplaces that are currently prohibited under legislation that lawmakers sent to the governor's desk. (Stock photo via Canva)

The Iowa Senate sent legislation loosening child labor restrictions to Gov. Kim Reynolds Wednesday, accepting the bipartisan changes made by House lawmakers Tuesday.

Lawmakers gave final approval to Senate File 542 in a 29-18 vote. The bill extends working hours for workers under age 18, as well as allows minors to seek exemptions from the state to work in some dangerous fields through workplace training programs through employers or schools.

The House amended the bill Tuesday to fix what Democrats called some of the “most egregious” portions of the bill, such as allowing 14- and 15-year-olds to work in potentially dangerous fields, as well as narrowing provisions that allow 16- and 17-year-old employees to sell and serve alcohol.

The Senate approved the House amendment nearly unanimously, with only Democratic Sen. Tony Bisignano voting against the change. He said Republicans are trying to use children to solve the labor shortage resulting from their moves to drive down wages and remove support systems for Iowa families.

“I’m not going to take a piece of garbage and trying to polish it up to make it better,” Bisignano said. In earlier debates, Republican senators denied claims that the bill is an attempt to address Iowa’s workforce shortage.

Senate Democrats largely praised the amendment, saying they appreciated House Republicans’ willingness to work across the aisle when drafting changes on the controversial bill. When Senate lawmakers took up the bill in April, legislators did not finish debate until nearly 6 a.m. after Republicans chose not to accept questions from Democrats during floor debate.

Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls said he is supportive of the changes, but there are still problems with the final legislation such as allowing minors to work longer hours and allowing youth to work in spaces that are prohibited by federal law, such as performing work in a meat freezer.

“Now there are still a few downsides, there are still a few dangerous and illegal things that would be codified by this bill,” Wahls said. “But overall, there should be no doubt (the amendment) coming over from the House is going to make a very, very positive improvement to this legislation.”

Sen. Adrian Dickey, R-Packwood, said the issues Democrats claimed the House amendment fixed were not actually problems in the original bill. For example, he said the added requirement that two adult employees are physically present when a minor is serving alcohol did not mean no adults were required to be present in the previous version of the bill. Bartenders must be above age 18 and are the employees making the drinks, he said. While Democrats criticized the extension of hours, Dickey said these changes are consistent with federal law.

Dickey also argued with Senate Democrats who said they were kept out of the process, saying no Democrats came to discuss their concerns about the legislation in the four months leading up to floor debate.

“I too, I’m glad the ideas that the House (had) came up … because they had some ideas that improved the bill,” Dickey said. “It’d have been nice if we had them, but yes, coming from the House, it improves the bill.”

The bill heads to Gov. Kim Reynolds for final approval. The governor told reporters in April she supports expanding employment options for teens, saying families should be allowed to make the decision to allow children to work at a younger age if they so choose.

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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.