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Iowa's youth employment law is 'inconsistent' with federal law, US Department of Labor says

The department originally told Democratic legislators in May that an earlier version of the youth employment bill could violate federal child labor law.

IOWA, USA — The U.S. Department of Labor has reaffirmed its opposition to a new Iowa law expanding youth employment, saying certain provisions "appear to be inconsistent" with federal child labor law, according to a letter dated Aug. 24.

The new response from the Department of Labor comes about a month and a half after some Democrats requested further assistance in determining whether provisions of the youth employment law would conflict with federal child labor law. 

Senate File 542 was signed into law by Gov. Kim Reynolds in late May. The legislation is designed to let some teenagers work in restricted industries, like manufacturing, as long as it's part of a work-based program. 

The U.S. Department of Labor originally told Democratic legislators in May that an earlier version of the youth employment bill could violate federal child labor regulations. 

In the latest letter, the department reaffirmed this stance, writing in part: "As explained in our May 10, 2023 letter, the FLSA establishes federal standards with respect to child labor, and while states can pass more protective laws, states cannot nullify federal requirements by enacting less protective standards."

Specifically, the department takes issue with a section of the law that allows 16-and 17-year-olds to work in hazardous occupations, as long as they are doing so through an educational or work-based learning program. 

The Department of Labor wrote it does provide "limited exceptions" to certain hazardous occupations, but there are "specific and important requirements" that must be met for those exceptions to apply. The youth employment law as it stands does not contain the same requirements that are outlined in federal law. 

"As mentioned, these requirements act as important safeguards to ensure the safety and well-being of 16-and 17-year-olds as they participate in apprenticeships and potentially hazardous work," the department writes in part. "Thus, this provision of Iowa’s child labor law, in its current form, is inconsistent with federal law to the extent that an employer or child is covered by the FLSA."

Additionally, the department states that these exceptions only apply to certain occupations. Under federal law, teenagers cannot legally complete the following jobs, even if they are enrolled in an educational or work-based learning program: 

  • Operate power-driven hoisting apparatuses or bakery machines
  • Manufacture brick, tile or related products
  • Work in wrecking, demolition or ship breaking operations

"Iowa is one of 21 states across the nation - including Illinois and Minnesota - with employment laws related to minors that don't comply with federal law," Reynolds said in a statement. "Unlike Washington D.C., here in Iowa, we believe in the dignity of work and want to instill those values in the next generation."

Since the newly-enacted Iowa law does permit teenagers to work in these roles, the U.S. Department of Labor states Iowa law is acting in violation of federal law. 

The department states in the letter that it has reached out to the Iowa Commissioner of Labor, recommending that the Iowa Department of Inspection, Appeals and Licensing "include specific language" online and in compliance materials that makes it clear that most employers are subject to both federal and state child labor laws. 

"...employers covered by the FLSA who only follow a less restrictive Iowa law will be in violation of federal law," the department said in the letter. "We hope that this language may provide clarity to employers who could violate the FLSA by, for example, only complying with a less protective Iowa child labor law."

The department continues to say it "has broad authority to enforce the child labor provisions of the FLSA. FLSA-covered employers that violate federal child labor law are subject to various penalties, including civil money penalties, which depend on the nature of the violations and the underlying factual circumstances."

"There are real concerns here, we're talking about children operating heavy machinery that would be allowed under the guise of an internship," Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, told Local 5. "Just because you put 'apprentice' or 'intern' in front of a position doesn't make it safe.

Rep. Jeff Cooling, D-Cedar Rapids, also weighed in on the letter, saying in part, “Child labor is not the solution to Iowa’s workforce shortage and it never should be. It’s time to put people, especially our kids, over politics.”

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