Federal officials: Iowa child labor law conflicts with national restrictions on dangerous workplaces

By: - September 1, 2023 4:04 pm

The U.S. Department of Labor says parts of Iowa's new child labor law violates the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. (Photo illustration via Canva)

Iowa’s new child labor law conflicts with federal regulations by easing some restrictions on teenagers working in potentially dangerous conditions, the U.S. Department of Labor wrote in a letter to Democratic lawmakers.

Solicitor of Labor Seema Nanda and Wage and Hour Division Principal Deputy Administrator Jessica Looman replied to questions sent by Iowa Democrats in July following the implementation of Senate File 542.

The measure, signed into law by Gov. Kim Reynolds in May, loosens restrictions on some child labor regulations in Iowa. Under the new law, minors over age 16 can sell and serve alcohol in restaurants while kitchens remain open, 14- and 15-year-olds can work longer hours and more hours a week, and 16- and 17-year-olds can seek exemptions to work in restricted fields with dangerous working conditions as part of a work-study program or employer training.

Department of Labor officials wrote that the changes to restrictions for workers ages 16 and 17 in potentially dangerous fields violates federal law. While federal law also allows teens to be employed in some “hazardous occupations” through student-learner and apprenticeship programs, the Iowa law would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work in demolition, heavy manufacturing and to operate certain power-driven machines — work prohibited for minors under national child labor laws.

Iowa’s law also conflicts with federal regulations because it doesn’t require the registration of employers or student-learner programs that employ teens in potentially dangerous fields through learning programs, labor officials wrote. Federal law requires training and work-study programs to register through the U.S. Department of Labor or through a state agency before employing minors to ensure work conditions meet state and federal standards.

Despite Iowa loosening these requirements in state code, most employers are still subject to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, according to the letter, and those in violation could be subject to penalties.

“While states can pass more protective laws, states cannot nullify federal requirements by enacting less protective standards,” Nanda and Looman wrote.

These are not the only areas where the new law conflicts with federal code. In a May letter, labor officials said Iowa’s move to allow 14- and 15-year-olds to perform certain tasks, including light assembly work and non-incidental work in meat freezers and industrial laundries, conflicted with federal law, as did the expansion of hours permitted for workers ages 14 and 15. Previous Iowa law matched federal regulations.

The officials said the department “will continue to monitor Iowa’s implementation of the law to assess potential obstruction of federal child labor protections.”

Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, said the letter is a warning to employers who could put their businesses “at risk by hiring young people in illegal jobs.”

“The child-labor expansion forced into law by Republican politicians and Gov. Reynolds sets a trap for Iowa kids and businesses alike,” Boulton said in a statement. “It makes our kids less safe by exposing them to hazardous environments that could get them injured or even killed — something the legislation itself acknowledged. And now it creates new bureaucratic confusion that can lead employers right into violations of federal law.”

Democrats repeatedly criticized the areas where the proposal conflicted with federal child labor law in debate during the 2023 legislative session. But Republicans including Sen. Adrian Dickey, R-Packwood, said the existing Iowa child labor law also conflicted with federal standards, as do child labor laws in a “majority of the states” as well as Washington, D.C.

“If you’re outraged on this bill because high schoolers will be able to work hours that contradict federal law, then why did you try to introduce legislation to legalize recreational use of marijuana?” Dickey said in April.

Iowa was one of multiple states that passed laws in 2023 rolling back child labor laws. These changes to work regulations come as Iowa, alongside many other states, face workforce shortages, though Republicans have said the measure was not an attempt to address Iowa’s need for workers.

Rep. Jeff Cooling, D-Cedar Rapids, said the measure hurts both employers and workers.

“Kids’ lives are at risk today because Republican lawmakers passed a bill for the special interests,” Cooling said in a statement. “Not only is it confusing but it proves costly for Iowa businesses just trying to do the right thing. Child labor is not the solution to Iowa’s workforce shortage and it never should be.”

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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.