Iowa labor leaders, others, protest proposed changes to child labor laws
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Iowa labor leaders, others, protest proposed changes to child labor laws

Jul 20, 2023

Union members and others around the state protested Saturday against the proposed loosening of Iowa's child labor laws.

The protests were held in front of the Iowa Capitol and in Keokuk, Peosta, Sioux City, Council Bluffs, Iowa City and Davenport. In Des Moines, critics of the legislation including House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, said the proposed changes would put kids in danger and encourage low-income families to place their children in the labor force instead of allowing them to concentrate on their education.

The bill, which comes amid a labor shortage, would allow teens as young as 14 work in a variety of occupations from which they are currently barred, including on meat-processing lines, operating powerful machines that bend steel and loading heavy trucks. It would also extend the hours younger teens could work, allow those as young as 14 1/2 to drive solo to work on a special permit before getting their license and, with their parents' permission, serve alcohol in restaurants.

More:The good and the bad of Iowa's bill that would bring big changes to child labor laws

Supporters of the bill say the young workers would be part of school- or employer-based job training programs, with appropriate adult supervision. They say the measure would allow kids to check out jobs at an earlier age and gain valuable skills.

But Konfrst said she was raised by a single mother who was "broke as hell" and, had such programs existed at the time, she would have felt pressured to work to help support her. When her mother got to her feet, Konfrst did end up working at a Dairy Queen as a teen ― not to support her family, but to buy things she wanted.

"Everybody in family started in my family started at Dairy Queen at 14. They stopped when it started interfering at school. We had that luxury. Not every Iowa family does," she said.

Ivette Muhammad, chief operating officer at human development nonprofit Creative Visions, said she is particularly concerned about changes the law would make to hours kids ages 14 and 15 can work. The law would let kids under 16 work until 9 p.m. instead of quitting by 7 p.m. And quitting time would be extended to 11 p.m. from June 1 through Labor Day.

The bill would also change to six from four the number of hours someone under age 16 can work per day outside of school.

"Subtract six hours from 9 o'clock. That's 3 o'clock.," Muhammad said. "When are these kids going to have time to study, in their sleep?"

More:Key points of bill to change Iowa Child Labor Law

Al Womble, chair of the Iowa Democratic Black Caucus and the state political director for the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO, said that under the bill, teens could be placed in dangerous workplaces and that they may not understand the risks they face in certain jobs.

"Right now the conditions in some of these places aren't necessarily safe or acceptable for the adults who are working there," Womble said. "Now you want to put younger kids in there?"

Joe Henry, state political director for the League of United Latin American Citizens#307, warned that nonwhite youths would be particularly vulnerable.

"It is a way to exploit our young people in diverse communities for the sole purpose of greed," Henry said. "If you put kids in dangerous situations, there will be injuries."

The bill originally would have exempted businesses from civil liability if a student was sickened, injured or killed due to either the student or the company's negligence. But an amendment removed that language.

A company could face fines of up to $10,000 for violations under the bill, but the state's labor commissioner could reduce or waive the penalty. And a business still could face civil liability if a student is injured while driving for work, but not while traveling to or from work.

"It's saying for those lower-income kids, they are expendable. They are a cog in a machine," Womble said. "We should value human life in general more than that, especially our children."

The bill's opponents previously protested at the Capitol on Feb. 27, before the legislative winnowing process called the funnel, which the bill survived.

The U.S. Labor Department's top lawyer, Solicitor of Labor Seema Nanda, this month criticized child labor bills like the one in Iowa, saying the proposals would contribute to the rising number of children who have been found working illegally at U.S companies.

But a Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll conducted March 5-8 found that 50% of Iowans favor the bill, while 42% oppose it and 8% are undecided.

Philip Joens covers retail, real estate and RAGBRAI for the Des Moines Register. He can be reached at 515-284-8184, [email protected] or on Twitter @Philip_Joens.

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