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Labor Officials: Iowa GOP’s Child Labor Bill Would Violate Federal Law

Proposals like allowing children to work in meat coolers violate federal child labor safeguards, officials say.

Children ride on a trailer along Grand Avenue during the Iowa State Fair Parade on August 7, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa.

A child labor expansion bill being pushed by Republicans and industry groups in Iowa to allow children to work in meat coolers would stand in violation of federal labor laws, top Department of Labor officials are warning.

Several provisions proposed under S.F. 542, which was passed by the Iowa legislature earlier this month, appear to be “inconsistent” with federal laws surrounding child labor, federal officials wrote in a letter sent last week. The officials point out that the Department of Labor is already looking into potential federal child labor violations in the state.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) “establishes federal standards with respect to child labor, and states cannot nullify federal requirements by enacting less protective standards,” the officials wrote. “Therefore, if Iowa law were to conflict with the FLSA and the Department’s regulations by permitting minors to work in occupations and during or for hours that they are otherwise prohibited from working under federal law, those state law provisions would be inconsistent with FLSA.”

Allowing children to work in meat freezers and industrial laundry, as the Iowa bill proposes, is prohibited by federal law, the officials say.

Meanwhile, the officials point out that the bill’s provisions expanding the hours that 14 and 15 year olds are allowed to work are also in violation of federal law.

Federal law only allows 14 and 15 year olds to work until 7 p.m. during the school year and 9 p.m. during the summer, but the bill proposes allowing them to work until 9 p.m. during the school year and 11 p.m. during the summer. And, while the FLSA mandates that 14 and 15 year olds work no more than 3 hours on a school day and no more than 18 hours a week during the school year, S.F. 542 would expand the number of hours to 6 hours a day on a school day and 28 hours a week during the school year.

The letter was sent in response to a request by seven Iowa Senate Democrats who asked the Department of Labor to review the bill in March. The lawmakers said that the letter confirmed that Republicans’ true aim with the bill, as with similar child labor bills in other states, is to make it easier for businesses to violate federal child labor laws.

“This letter confirms what we’ve argued since this debate began: in the rush to expand child labor in Iowa, Republican legislators will be inviting businesses to break federal law,” said state Sen. Nate Boulton (D) in a statement. “Protections against unsafe and exploitative child labor are there for a reason, and failed measures to address Iowa’s workforce crisis is no excuse to undermine those safeguards.”

State Rep. Jeff Cooling, the top Democrat on the House Labor and Workforce Committee, pointed out that the bill was originally pushed by Republican lobbying groups.

“With active child investigations underway in Iowa, now is not the time to put more kids at risk in dangerous working environments,” Cooling said. “Since this bill was pushed by out-of-state special interests, the governor should do what’s best for Iowans and veto the bill.”

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