HomeTop StoriesIowa companies and lawmakers are ignoring warnings about child labor and reaping...

Iowa companies and lawmakers are ignoring warnings about child labor and reaping the consequences

Iowa businesses are openly ignoring federal rules on when and how many children can work, and the federal government has taken notice. Who are the victims?

  1. The exploited children.

  2. The owners and managers who planned the exploited children.

If you picked 2, congratulations! You’ve mastered the increasingly popular art of turning guilt into resentment.

There’s more to the story than this quiz shows: Policymakers and a trade group have been pushing companies to turn their noses up at regulations on teen work hours. But even the more nuanced version can be accurately reduced to one of many memes. “Well, well, well, if it isn’t the consequences of my own actions” comes to mind.

The transgressions cannot be undone, so the way forward is to make the best of the situation. The state government, which helped spark the standoff, should take the lead in negotiations with the U.S. Department of Labor to reach broad settlements on child labor penalties. With business owners saying fines could put them out of business, it may be appropriate for the state to take responsibility for preventing that. Everyone involved must follow federal rules. And Iowa law will need to be updated in 2025 so companies can’t receive inconsistent directions.

More: Companies are in the middle of conflicting child labor laws. How do they vary?

How Iowa’s child labor law became a catastrophe

The idea to loosen Iowa’s child labor laws emerged during 2022 working group meetings involving Jessica Dunker, president and CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association, other industry lobbyists, and Beth Townsend, director of Iowa Workforce Development. This is evident from public documents obtained and posted by progressive activist David Goodner.

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A few months later, bills were introduced in the Iowa Legislature with sweeping provisions that would eliminate protections. A few additional terrible ideas, such as making employers immune from liability if children are injured, were jettisoned in the ensuing months. But the bill that Gov. Kim Reynolds signed in May 2023 still fixed things that weren’t broken, creating new problems.

Both before and after the bill passed, Democrats in the Biden administration’s Statehouse and Labor Department said loudly that Iowa risked trouble by saying teens could work later and more often than federal rules allow. In the event of such conflicts, stricter version control applies. Iowa said 14- and 15-year-olds could work until 9 p.m. during the school year and until 11 p.m. in the summer; the real standards are 7:00 PM and 9:00 PM

The enforcement should not have been a surprise. Iowa needs to clean up its mess.

As the Register’s Kevin Baskins reported, Dunker’s Iowa Restaurant Association encouraged members to take advantage of the state law. The Labor Department said it would “continue to monitor the implementation of the law in Iowa to assess potential interference with federal protections against child labor.” The Labor Department wasn’t kidding.

The Restaurant Association said in a June 7 email that regulators were “in full force across the state. They are taking massive punitive action against Iowa restaurants that follow new state youth employment hours instead of federal hour regulations. A Subway franchisee who had not yet been fined told Baskins, “I followed state law to the letter because I thought I had to.”

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Dunker, Statehouse Republicans and others have expressed outrage, saying the Labor Department should have either dropped Iowa’s derisive laws or taken a softer approach by issuing warnings to businesses instead of fines to lay. None of the objections help in the slightest.

Federal officials denied allegations that enforcement was selective or inconsistent. But even if that were the case, breaking rules is still breaking rules; this argument didn’t catch on when Connecticut’s Aaliyah Edwards illegally blocked Iowa’s Gabbie Marshall in the Final Four in April, and it doesn’t anymore. Among the people who are dismayed that President Joe Biden is enforcing labor laws, are there the same people who have been red-faced for months because Biden would not enforce immigration laws?

The state needs to clean up the mess he started. Cases involving much more egregious violations of child labor laws often end in settlements with less severe penalties than those now looming. Iowa human resources officials and the attorney general’s office must take the lead in negotiations with the Labor Department to ensure that Iowans who followed terrible advice are not left to fend for themselves further. If the fines really threaten to put anyone out of business, especially those without any history of employment law problems, a bailout would be in order.

Unfortunately, it looks like Iowa will dig in its heels instead. Reynolds on Friday announced a news conference for Monday in North Liberty about “excessive penalties against Iowa businesses that employ teenagers.”

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The Iowa law for teens is not only illegal, but it also does not provide adequate childhood and education protections

There is room for well-intentioned disagreement about whether federal protections are actually too strict. Supporters of the Iowa law make a valid point that school-sponsored extracurricular activities keep students out much later than 7 or even 9 p.m. But the reasons for putting some brakes on the work of younger teens are more compelling. Research often links sleep deprivation to teens’ academic, social, and mental health problems. In the case of families who are in such a precarious situation that a child’s earning potential is vital to their well-being, Iowa would be better off supporting those families more directly. Children should have a childhood.

Of course, it should have gone without saying that the policy debate has nothing to do with whether companies are required to observe federal protections for 14- and 15-year-olds. Lawmakers, trade group leaders, and executives who kept teenagers on the clock all grossly misjudged how this would play out, from proposal to implementation. They have only themselves to blame.

Lucas Grundmeier, on behalf of the editorial staff of the Register

READ FURTHER: The restaurant lobby in Iowa plays stupid games and wins stupid prizes

READ FURTHER: From 1946: “Why Child Labor Laws?”

This editorial is the opinion of the Des Moines Register editorial board: Carol Hunter, editor-in-chief; Lucas Grundmeier, opinion editor; and Richard Doak and Rox Laird, members of the editorial board.

Want more opinions? Read other perspectives with our free newsletter, follow us on Facebook or visit us at DesMoinesRegister.com/opinion. Respond to each opinion by submitting a letter to the editor at DesMoinesRegister.com/letters.

This article originally appeared in the Des Moines Register: Iowa Lawmakers Made a Mess of Child Labor Law; they have to clean it up

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